By J. J. Virgo .
It is late in the day to remind you that every nation and tribe under heaven has in some respect, though differently stated, a belief in a Supreme Being, and a final happy solution of all life's troubles in a place, variously described, for those who have exercised faith. It would appear, therefore, that religion should have a material place in the scheme of things affecting all mankind, and not be a subject to be discussed with bated breath, but rather unaffectedly avowed.
Without attempting to discuss the religions of the world (an impossibility in a short address, and certainly beyond my powers), I would limit myself to the Christian religion, of which Jesus is the great exponent, and say at once that, far from being the extraordinary possession of men, it should be a natural corollary of his existence. In some respects it is a complexity, but need not therefore be a perplexity. Indeed, it is its simplicity that is at once an attraction and a bar to its acceptance. It is associated not with the intellectual alone, but with the will and the practical life. The observance of sacraments, rites and ceremonies, appeal or repel according to temperament, but there is a general recognition that true religion is the complete response of man's whole nature to the Unseen, the Infinite, the Eternal, resulting in obedience to Divine Law, and finding its fullest joy in the true service of God and of man.
St. James has tersely affirmed that pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27). Surely there is nothing unnatural here, save to the selfish and self-satisfied soul, who recognizes no interdependence, and whose poor spirit forbids his rising above the "eat, drink and be merry" (Eccl. 8:15) attitude. There are those who regard it as unnatural and unreasonable because they attack the problem by regarding it as a matter for the head. But, as has been well said, it is a matter of the spiritual aptitudes, and is to regulate life.
Jesus did not bring to the world a new code of rules, certainly, but He did lay down principles and set up standards by which those who have accepted Him can order their doings and help towards the betterment of the world. It should be the most natural thing for men to desire to gladden, to suffuse light, to sweeten, to purify, and to be fruitful in all good graces, and these are surely the things suggested by such metaphors as "Light," "Salt," "Branches of the Vine."
The Christian religion has been given to the world by an acknowledged perfect man. Its principles are commended by the manliest of men, by great scholars, by noble and profound thinkers. Religion has been the main-spring in the life of men who have stamped their character upon the world. Obviously no other has affected the human race as has Jesus, and His religion has survived its base betrayals, and its persistence shows its tremendous recuperative power.
And Why? Because "Christ Himself is the secret of the perennial vitality of His religion." True, many of its professors are inconsistent, but the very charge is an acknowledgment of its purity and genuineness. It is a striking testimony to the might of spiritual forces when men complain of the ineffectiveness of inconstant Christians, for it is no evidence of defect in the religion itself, but, on the contrary, a tribute to it. Men do not imitate the base and worthless.
The Christian religion appeals to me for four reasons, which I give under alliterative heads. It renews man's nature; it gives him resisting force; it supplies him with restraining grace; and it furnishes him with replenishing influence.
The irreligious character is a defective character, for goodness is not a negative quality: it is the dominion of the soul over vicious forces. Free will implies the possibility of double action. If a man had been made incapable of sinning, he would have been a thing and not a man. The power he possesses to do right is the same power used in the exercise of doing wrong. The tendency to wrong in an unregenerate state becomes diverted towards right when a man is renewed by the exercise of his will in the power of the Spirit of the Great Master of men.
Political economy and natural philosophy cannot remake man, for they do not touch the vital fact of an image marred, of a will weakened, of an affection denied, of a soul soiled, of a burden too heavy to be borne. To such, other religions will give freely of counsel and guidance for the planning of life, but the Founder of the Christian religion Himself stooped to the lowest depths to raise men to the greatest Heights.
What more natural, then, than that there should be given a power of resistance against the evil forces around? Henceforth, he is not a mere tool of circumstance. He has learned that any fool can do wrong, and that he is in possession of a new power, a new life in Christ, a proved armor that furnishes him with the ability not to yield to evil forces. Another element has entered into his manhood. He has a new impulse towards fighting, thwarting, baffling and disappointing the evil spirit that leads men astray. What more natural than for man, impelled by the good spirit of true religion, to set about righting; wrongs in communities, when his own wrong tendencies have been set right? Surely a religion that produces this type has an appeal in it to every right-thinking citizen?
A great evangelist used to say, that "Character is what a man is in the dark." And who has not prayed: "Restrain in me the accursed thoughts which nature gives way to in repose" (Macbeth). Hence the need for a religion which will control, check, curb, and restrict what are called natural tendencies. Habit becomes a mighty chain, and binds men as most know. The practice of the Christian religion is the natural restraining school for the development of character.
A man hesitated to accept Christianity as a practical and natural aid to right living because of his habit of swearing, which he avowed no power could break. Finally yielding, he shortly afterwards met with an accident which ought, in the ordinary course, to have resulted in producing a lurid effect on the atmosphere. Conscious of the new power which had suppressed his natural tendency, he rushed across to a nearby friend, declaring that a miracle had happened, for he had "fallen down the hay-loft and didn't swear." "But," he added, "a greater miracle happened when I found I didn't want to swear."
But finally, I know nothing that will create a finer national soul and a righteous community conscience, than the Christian religion, which, in its natural outcome, exercises replenishing influence on community life. For the truly religious man is interested in and concerned for others. It is a sad commentary that, whilst so many profess religion, so few give practical effect to its teaching on the lines of "who is my neighbour!" (Luke 10:29). Churches lack workers, missions are poorly supported, and institutions are hampered, when, if the religion they represent received adequate recognition, efforts for the improvement of the race by means of legislative enactment, better environment and increased efficiency would be tremendously aided, because of the addition of an impelling spiritual force.
It will be a sorry day for our Empire when there is a failure to recognize the value and naturalness of religion [and the indications are that that day has arrived]. The present conditions demand a clarion call by the Church of Jesus Christ to all communities to return to the simple religion which made our fathers great. And, on the part of all, there is need to recognize that in Christ we have the solution of all life's problems, and that the most natural thing is to accept His standards, for these apply to every phase of existence, whether affecting poverty, riches, the family, marriage, human society, politics, or international friendship.
With the utmost faith in the Gospel, I appeal to each one of my hearers to make a definite choice of Jesus Christ as a personal Saviour. We owe it to Him to recognize His obvious claims upon our allegiance, and I know of no other who can effectually meet the needs of the soul. All of us stand in need of forgiveness: none is able of himself to satisfy the claims of the law. His grace alone is sufficient.
We owe this choice to His Church, for the opportunities it offers will aid in the development of our own life and character; we owe it to the community of which we form a part, because of the influence that we can exert in the interests of public betterment; we owe it to the world at large, for every additional faithful response to the claims of the Gospel at home makes easier the effective presentation of the message to those without our privileges; we owe it to ourselves, "for there is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
Therefore, I urge very strongly the necessity for making a decision, of giving a verdict. This is the course which is invariably taken in the ordinary matters of life - a political campaign will find you exercising your right to choose for whom you will vote; a business career is offered and a decision regarding it has to be made; the moment will come when your mind will need to be made up on the all-important question of the choice of a wife [spouse]. In fact you are all the time making decisions, choosing, giving expression to your choice.
I submit again that the irreligious character is essentially a defective character, and the claims of religion are such as to demand from you settled convictions, strong faith, courage to take a stand, and determination to live a life consistent With all that is highest and best.
I therefore would in closing say once more, take your stand for Christ and religion; such an action will give new purpose to life, will add fresh beauty to life, will stop the waste in your life, and will prevent drifting into indifference as to God's claims upon that life.
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