SERMON: Love, The One Thing Needful, by John Henry Newman

Love, The One Thing Needful John Henry Newman

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)

I suppose the greater number of persons who try to live Christian lives, and who observe themselves with any care, are dissatisfied with their own state on this point, viz., that, whatever their religious attainments may be, yet they feel that their motive is not the highest; — that the love of God, and of man for his sake, is not their ruling principle.  They may do much, nay, if it so happen, they may suffer much; but they have little reason to think that they love much, that they do and suffer for love’s sake.  I do not mean that they thus express themselves exactly, but that they are dissatisfied with themselves, and that when this dissatisfaction is examined into, it will be found ultimately to come to this, thought they will give different accounts of it.  They may call themselves cold, or hard-hearted, or fickle, or double-minded, or doubting, or dim-sighted, or weak in resolve, but they mean pretty much the same thing, that their affections do not rest on Almighty God as their great Object.  And this will be found to be the complaint of religious men among ourselves, not less than others; their reason and their heart not going together; their reason tending heavenwards, and their heart earthwards.

I will now make some remarks on the defect I have described, as thinking that the careful consideration of it may serve as one step towards its removal.  Love, and love only, is the fulfilling of the Law, and they only are in God’s favor in whom the righteousness of the Law is fulfilled.  This we know full well; yet alas! At the same time, we cannot deny that whatever good thing we have to show, whether activity, or patience, or faith, or fruitfulness in good works, love to God and man is not ours, or, at least, in very scanty measure; not at all proportionately to our apparent attainments.

In the first place, love clearly does not consist merely in great sacrifices.  We can take no comfort to ourselves that we are God’s own, merely on the ground of great deeds or great sufferings.  The greatest sacrifices without love would be nothing worth, and that they are great does not necessarily prove they are done with love.  Saint Paul emphatically assures us that his acceptance with God did not stand in any of those high endowments, which strike us in him at first sight, and which, did we actually see him, doubtless would so much draw us to him.  One of his highest gifts, for instance, was his spiritual knowledge.  He shared, and felt the sinfulness and infirmities of human nature; he had a deep insight into the glories of God’s grace, such as no natural man can have.  He had an awful sense of the realities of Heaven, and of the mysteries revealed.  He could have answered ten thousand questions on theological subjects, on all those points about which the church has disputed since his time, and which we now long to ask him.  He was a man whom one could not come near, without going away from him wiser than one came; a fount of knowledge and wisdom ever full, ever approachable, ever flowing, from which all who came in faith, gained a measure of the gifts which God had lodged in him.  His presence inspired resolution, confidence, and zeal, as one who was the keeper of secrets, and the revealer of the whole counsel of God; and who, by look, and word, and deed encompassed, as it were, his brethren with God’s mercies and judgments, spread abroad and reared aloft the divine system of doctrine and precept, and seated himself and them securely in the midst of it.  Such was this great servant of Christ and teacher of the Gentiles; yet he says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  I am nothing.”  Spiritual discernment, an insight into the Gospel covenant, is no evidence of love.

Another distinguishing mark of his character, as viewed in scripture, is his faith, a prompt, decisive, simple assent to God’s word, a deadness to motives of Earth, a firm hold of the truths of the unseen world, and keenness in following them out; yet he says of his faith also, “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”  Faith is no necessary evidence of love.

A tender consideration of the temporal wants of his brethren is another striking feature of  his character, as it is a special characteristic of every true Christian; yet he says, “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”  Self-denying alms-giving is no necessary evidence of love.

Once more.  He, if any man, had the spirit of a martyr; yet he implies that even martyrdom, viewed in itself, is no passport into the heavenly kingdom.  “Though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”  Martyrdom is no necessary evidence of love.

I do not say that at this day we have many specimens or much opportunity of such high deeds and attainments; but in our degree we certainly may follow Saint Paul in them, — in spiritual discernment, in faith, in works of mercy, and in confessorship.  We may, we ought to follow him.  Yet though we do, still, it may be, we are not possess of the one thing needful, of the spirit of love, or in a very poor measure; and this is what serious men feel in their own case.

Let us leave these sublimer matters, and proceed to the humbler and continual duties of daily life; and let us see whether these too may not be performed with considerable exactness, yet with deficient love.  Surely they may; and serious men complain of themselves here, even more than when they are exercised on greater subjects.  Our Lord says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments;” but they feel that though they are, to a certain point, keeping God’s commandments, yet love is not proportionate, does not keep pace, with their obedience; that obedience springs from some source short of love.  This they perceive; they feel themselves to be hollow; a fair outside, without a spirit within it.

I mean as follows: — It is possible to obey, not from love towards God and man, but from a sort of conscientiousness short of love; from some notion of acting up to a law; that is, more from the fear of God than from love of him.  Surely this is what, in one shape or other, we see daily on all sides of us; the case of men, living to the world, yet not without a certain sense of religion, which acts as a restraint on them.  They pursue ends of this world, but not to the full; they are checked and go a certain way only, because they dare not go further.  This external restraint acts with various degrees of strength on various persons.  They all live to this world a certain range; but, at some particular point, which is often quite arbitrary, this man stops, and that man stops.  Each stops at a different point in the course of the world, and thinks every one else profane who goes further, and superstitious who does not go so far, — laughs at the latter, is shocked at the former.  And hence those few who are miserable enough to have rid themselves of all scruples, look with great contempt on such of their companions as have any, be those scruples more or less, as being inconsistent and absurd.  They scoff at the principle of mere fear, as a capricious and fanciful principle; proceeding on no rule, and having no evidence of its authority, no claim on our respect; as a weakness in our nature, rather than an essential portion of that nature, viewed in its perfection and entireness.  And this being all the notion which their experience gives them of religion, as not knowing really religious men, they think of religion, only as a principle which interferes with our enjoyments unintelligibly and irrationally.  Man is made to love.  So far is plain.  They see that clearly and truly; but religion, as far as they conceive of it, is a system destitute of objects of love; a system of fear.  It repels and forbids, and thus seems to destroy the proper function of man, or, in other words, to be unnatural.  And it is true that this sort of fear of God, or rather slavish dread, as it may more truly be called, is unnatural; but then it is not religion, which really consists, not in the mere fear of God, but in his love; or if it be religion, it is but the religion of devils, who believe and tremble; or of idolaters, whom devils have seduced, and whose worship is superstition, — the attempt to appease beings whom they love not; and, in a word, the religion of the children of this world, who would, if possible, serve God and Mammon, and, whereas religion consists of love and fear, give to God their fear, and to Mammon their love.

And what takes place so generally in the world at large, this, I say, serious men will feel as happening, in its degree, in their own case.  They will understand that even strict obedience is no evidence of fervent love, and they will lament to perceive that they obey God far more than they love him.  They will recollect the instance of Balaam, who was even exemplary in his obedience, yet had not love; and the thought will come over them as a perplexity, what proof they have that they are not, after all, deceiving themselves, and thinking themselves religious when they are not.  They will indeed be conscious to themselves of the sacrifice they make of their own wishes and pursuits to the will of God; but they are conscious also that they sacrifice them because they know they ought to do so, not simply from love of God.  And they ask, almost in a kind of despair, How are we to learn, not merely to obey, but to love?

And this would seem an especial difficulty in the case of those who live among men, whose duties lie amid the engagements of this world’s business, whose thoughts, affections, exertions, are directed towards things which they see, things present and temporal.  In their case it seems to be a great thing, even if their rule of life is a heavenly one, if they act according to God’s will; but how can they hope that heavenly objects should fill their heart, when there is no room left for them?  How shall things absent displace things present, things unseen the things that are visible?  Thus they seem to be reduced, as if by a sort of necessity, to the state of men of the world, that of having their hearts set on the world, and being only restrained outwardly by religious rules.

Generally speaking, men will be able to bring against themselves positive charges of want of love, more unsatisfactory still.  I suppose most men, or at least a great number of men, have to lament over their hardness of heart, which, when analyzed, will be found to be nothing else but the absence of love.  I mean that hardness which, for instance, makes us unable to repent as we wish.  No repentance is truly such without love; it is love which gives it its efficacy in God’s sight.  Without love there may be remorse, regret, self-reproach, self-condemnation, but there is not saving penitence.  There may be conviction of the reason, but not conversion of the heart.  Now, I say, a great many men lament in themselves this want of love in repenting; they are hard-hearted; they are deeply conscious of their sins; they abhor them; and yet they can take as lively interest in what goes on around them, as if they had no such consciousness; or they mourn this minute, and the next are quite impenetrable.  Or, though, as they think and believe, they fear God’s anger, and are full of confusion at themselves, yet they find (to their surprise, I may say) that they cannot abstain from any indulgence ever so trivial, which would be (as their reason tells them) a natural way of showing sorrow.  They eat and drink with as good a heart, as if they had no distress upon their minds; they find no difficulty in entering into any of the recreations or secular employments which come in their way.  They sleep as soundly; and, in spite of their grief, perhaps find it most difficult to persuade themselves to rise early to pray for pardon.  These are signs of want of love.

Or, again, without reference to the case of penitence, they have, a general indisposition towards prayer and other exercises of devotion.  They find it most difficult to get themselves to pray; most difficult, too, to rouse their minds to attend to their prayers.  At very best they do but feel satisfaction in devotion while they are engaged in it.  Then perhaps they find a real pleasure in it, and wonder they can ever find it irksome; yet if any chance throws them out of their habitual exercises, they find it most difficult to return to them.  They do not like them well enough to seek them from liking them.  They are kept in them by habit, by regularity in observing them; not by love.  When the regular course is broken, there is no inward principle to act at once in repairing the mischief.  In wounds of the body, nature works towards a recovery, and left to itself, would recover; but we have no spiritual principle strong and healthy enough to set religious matters right in us when they have got disordered, and to supply for us the absence of rule and custom.  Here, again, is obedience, more or less mechanical, or without love.

Again: — a like absence of love is shown in our proneness to be taken up and engrossed with trifles.  Why is it that we are so open to the power of excitement?  Why is it that we are looking out for novelties?  Why is it that we complain of want of variety in a religious life?  Why that we cannot bear to go on in an ordinary round of duties year after year?  Why is it that lowly duties, such as condescending to men of low estate, are distasteful and irksome?  Why is it that we need powerful preaching, or interesting and touching books, in order to keep our thoughts and feelings on God?  Why is it that our faith is so dispirited and weakened by hearing casual objections urged against the doctrine of Christ?  Why is it that we are so impatient that objections should be answered?  Why are we so afraid of worldly events, or the opinions of men?  Why do we so dread their censure or ridicule? – Clearly because we are deficient in love.  He who loves, cares little for anything else.  The world may go as it will; he sees and hears it not, for his thoughts are drawn another way; he is solicitous mainly to walk with God, and to be found with God; and is in perfect peace because he is stayed in him.

And here we have an additional proof how weak our love is; viz., when we consider how little adequate our professed principles are found to be, to support us in affliction.  I suppose it often happens to men to feel this, when some reverse or unexpected distress comes upon them.  They indeed most especially will feel it, of course, who have let their words, nay their thoughts, much outrun their hearts; but numbers will feel it too, who have tried to make their reason and affections keep pace with each other.  We are told of the righteous man, that “he will not be afraid of any evil tidings, for his heart standeth fast, and believeth in the Lord.  His heart is established, and will not shrink.” (Psalm 112:7, 8)  Such must be the case of every one who realizes his own words, when he talks of the shortness of life, the wearisomeness of the world, and the security of Heaven.  Yet how cold and dreary do all such topics prove, when a man comes into trouble?  And why, except that he has been after all set upon things visible, not on God, while he has been speaking of things invisible?  There has been much profession and little love.

These are some of the proofs which are continually brought home to us, if we attend to ourselves, of our want of love to God; and they will readily suggest others to us.  If I must, before concluding, remark upon the mode of overcoming the evil, I must say plainly this, that, fanciful though it may appear at first sight to say so, the comforts of life are the main cause of it; and, much as we may lament and struggle against it, till we learn to dispense with them in good measure, we shall not overcome it.  Till we, in a certain sense, detach ourselves from our bodies, our minds will not be in a state to receive divine impressions, and to exert heavenly aspirations.  A smooth and easy life, an uninterrupted enjoyment of the goods of Providence, full means, soft raiment, well-furnished homes, the pleasures of sense, the feeling of security, the consciousness of wealth, — these, and the like, if we are not careful, choke up all the avenues of the soul, through which the light and breath of Heaven might come to us.  A hard life is, alas! no certain method of becoming spiritually minded, but it is one out of the means by which Almighty God makes us so.  We must, at least at seasons, defraud ourselves of nature, if we would not be defrauded of grace.  If we attempt to force our minds into a loving and devotional temper, without this preparation, it is too plain what will follow, — the grossness and coarseness, the affectation, the effeminacy, the unreality, the presumption, the hollowness, (suffer me, my brethren, while I say plainly, but seriously, what I mean,) in a word, what scripture calls the hypocrisy, which we see around us; that state of mind in which the reason, seeing what we should be, and the conscious enjoining it, and the heart being unequal to it, some or other pretence is set up, by way of compromise, that men may say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.”

And next, after enjoining this habitual preparation of heart, let me bid you cherish, what otherwise it were shocking to attempt, a constant sense of the love of your Lord and savior in dying on the cross for you.  “The love of Christ,” says the Apostle, “constraineth us;” not that gratitude leads to love, where there is no sympathy, (for, as all know, we often reproach ourselves with not loving persons who yet have loved us,) but where hearts are in their degree renewed after Christ’s image, there, under his grace, gratitude to him will increase our love of him, and we shall rejoice in that goodness which has been so good to us.  Here, again, self-discipline will be necessary.  It makes the heart tender as well as reverent.  Christ showed his love in deed, not in word, and you will be touched by the thought of his cross far more by bearing it after him, than by the glowing accounts of it.  All the modes by which you bring it before you must be simple and severe; “excellency of speech,” or “enticing words,” to use Saint Paul’s language, is the worst way of any.  Think of the cross when you rise and when you lie down, when you go out and when you come in, when you eat and when you walk and when you converse, when you buy and when you sell, when you labor and when you rest, consecrating and sealing all your doings with this one mental action, the thought of the crucified.  Do not talk of it to others; be silent, like the penitent woman, who showed her love in deep subdued acts.  She “stood at his feed behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”  And Christ said of her, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her, for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (Luke 7:38, 47)

And, further, let us dwell often upon those his manifold mercies to us and to our brethren, which are the consequence of his coming upon Earth; his adorable counsel, as manifested in our personal election, — how it is that we are called and others not; the wonders of his grace towards us, from our infancy until now; the gifts he has given us; the aid he has vouchsafed; the answers he has accorded to our prayers.  And, further, let us, as far as we have the opportunity, meditate upon his dealings with his church from age-to-age; on his faithfulness to his promises, and the mysterious mode of their fulfillment; how he has ever led his people forward safely and prosperously on the whole amid so many enemies; what unexpected events have worked his purposes; how evil has been changed into good; how his sacred truth has ever been preserved unimpaired; how saints have been brought on to their perfection in the darkest times.  And, further, let us muse over the deep gifts and powers lodged in the church:  what thoughts do his ordinances raise in the believing mind!—what wonder, what awe, what transport, when duly dwelt upon!

It is by such deeds and such thoughts that our services, our repentings, our prayers, our intercourse with men, will become instinct with the spirit of love.  Then we do everything thankfully and joyfully, when we are temples of Christ, with his image set up in us.  Then it is that we mix with the world without loving it, for our affections are given to another.  We can bear to look on the world’s beauty, for we have no heart for it.  We are not disturbed at its frowns, for we live not in its smiles.  We rejoice in the house of prayer, because he is there “whom our soul loveth.”  We can condescend to the poor and lowly, for they are the presence of him who is invisible.  We are patient in bereavement, adversity, or pain, for they are Christ’s tokens.

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