“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)ASV
While we live we must be moving on. When we stop we begin to die. Rest is necessary, but only to renew our strength that we may press on again. An anchor is needful for a ship, but anchoring is not a ship’s business; it is built for sailing. A man is made for struggle and effort, not for ease and loitering.
In the history of the wanderings of the Israelites, there is an incident which is suggestive. It was near the close of the forty years in the wilderness. The people had been for some time in the region of Mount Seir, and seem to have been going round and round the mountain. Though they had been steadily in motion, yet they were making no progress, were getting no nearer the promised land. They would journey laboriously for many days through the wilderness, enduring hardship, suffering pain and weariness, and at last would come to the very place from which they had started. It was a fruitless kind of journeying. Then they were called to cease their going round the mountain and to enter on a course that would lead them somewhere. God said, “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” (Deuteronomy 2:3)KJ2000
There is a tendency among people to do something like this in everyday life. We are inclined to settle down in our present condition and stay there when we ought to be moving on to something beyond, something better, something larger and nobler. We let ourselves form the habit of moving round and round in a circle, when we ought to break away from the circular course and start forward. It is easy for us to get into a routine in life which will keep us in the same lines from day to day and from week to week.
Sometimes in the country I have seen a primitive mechanism for grinding bark. A horse, attached to a pole, goes round and round, running the bark mill. For hours every day the patient animal treads on, always moving, but never getting away from his little circular path. So it is that many people plod on in their daily routine of life. They do the same things day in and day out, week in and week out. This routine is not idle. It is really necessary that we do the same tasks over and over, with scarcely a variation from year to year.
The women find it so in their home life; their housekeeping duties are about the same every day. It cannot be otherwise. To break up the routine would be to mar the completeness of the home life and work. To omit any of the little duties of the kitchen, the dining room, or the general housework would be to leave the work of the home less beautifully done. Most men in their daily work must follow a like imperious routine. They must rise at the same hour, take the same train or trolley car, be at their desk in the office, or at their place in the mill, at the same time, follow the same order, perform the same tasks, go to their meals at the regular times, day after day. To miss a link anywhere in the routine would mar the day’s work.
Some people fret and chafe over the drudgery, as they call it, of their common lives. They are weary of its monotonous rounds, its lack of variety, its never-ending repetition. But really there is a benefit, a discipline, is this very sameness of tasks. The old horse that goes round and round in his circular track, turning the creaking, crunching mill, does his duty well, grinding the bark honestly though he never makes any progress himself. No doubt his work through the years adds thousands of dollars to the world’s wealth. The men and the women who rise in the morning and go through the same monotonous round of tasks every day, six days in the week, are doing their work faithfully and at the same time are forming their own character. That is the way we build our life. It would not be well if we were released from the daily round, though it is so monotonous. We owe much to it. It trains us.
Yet there is always danger that we become contented with our routine, and indisposed to go beyond it. It is true that the same daily duties which rest upon us must not be neglected, however dull or plain. But, besides this monotonous round, and in it, there should always be something larger going on. “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” We must not let our life run forever and only in a little circle, but must branch out, learn new lessons, venture into new lines, leave our narrow past, and grow into something more meaningful. Our daily walk should be like that of one whose path goes about a mountain, moving in a circle, perhaps, but climbing a little higher with each circuit, pursuing a sort of spiral course, constantly ascending the mountain peak, until at last he reaches the clear summit and looks into the face of God.
Narrowness is a constant peril, especially for those whose lives are plain and without distinction, the two-talented men and women, the common people. They must do chiefly tasks which are set for them. They do, all their life, some one little thing over and over. It is not easy to live an ever-widening life in such conditions. We are apt to let our immortality shrink into the measure of the little place we fill in the world. Yet it is possible, though our daily round is so small, to keep our mind free and be ever reaching out in sublime flights. There are men who work year after year in some small department of business, and then spend the hours outside of business in some line of work or research in which they are ever growing in knowledge, in mental breadth, into larger, stronger, better, and worthier men.
That is the way the lesson shapes itself for many of us. We must not allow our narrow occupation to dwarf our souls. Our work itself is valuable and noble, and we must never be ashamed of it and must do it with zest and enthusiasm. But while we do our little allotment of lowly duty faithfully, we must never permit our minds to dwarf or shrivel, but must continually train ourselves into larger things. Instead of hugging our little mountains and never going off the old paths, we should “turn northward” and find delight in new fields. This is a large world, and we live most inadequately when we stay all our life in a little one-acre lot.
There seems to be in this thought a suggestion for New Years or birthdays. We should not live any year merely as well as we lived the year before. There are people who really never advance in anything. They do their common task-work this year as they did it last, certainly no better. They keep the same habits, faults and all. They become no more intelligent, no more refined. They seem never to have a new thought, to learn a new fact, to become more useful among men. They grow no more patient, gentle, or sweet. They take no larger place in the community, and are no more useful among their fellows. They read no new books, make no advance in knowledge. Their life consists of the same old commonplaces, they tell the same little jokes over and over. In their religious life they do not grow. They know God no better, have no more trust in time of trouble, love no more, live no more helpfully, never get to know their Bible any better. They quote only the same two or three verses which they learned in childhood. If you hear them often, you will get to know their prayers by heart. They live the same pitiably narrow religious life at sixty which they were living at twenty! They simply go round and round the mountain, never climbing up to any loftier height as they journey. They never get the wider look they would get by ascending as they plod.
This is not the way to live. The message comes to us continually, “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” Northward for these pilgrims was toward Canaan, the new homeland. The wilderness was not their destination, it was only a road on which they were to travel, a region through which they were to pass to reach their land of promise, the good land of their hopes. So the call to us is northward, away from the common things into the higher and nobler things of life! We belong to God, and we should seek the things of God. We are risen with Christ, and we should seek the things of the resurrection life. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we should have our home there. We are called to leave the narrow life of our earthly state and turn heavenward!
Paul teaches us the same lesson in a remarkable passage in one of his epistles. He gives us a glimpse of the perfect life in Christ, a life that culminates in being glorified with Him in heaven. Paul says frankly that he has not yet attained the perfection of that realm, but he does not regard it as unattainable, and he has set his course accordingly. “I press on.” He is like the young man in Longfellow’s “Excelsior.”1 At the foot of the mountain he stood, gazing at the far-away radiant heights, but he wasted no moments in mere gazing. Carrying a banner which bore his motto, he began to climb. Disregarding all allurement, he kept on in his ascending path until he was lost to sight in the storms of the mountain crest. Thus Paul, this man of quenchless ardor, pressed his way toward the highest and best. He was writing from prison at this point, but prison walls were no barrier to his progress. He tells us, too, the method of his life. The two words which contain the secret of his noble career were—“forgetting,” “reaching.”
[A word meaning “higher” or “upwards.”]
There were certain things which he forgot. Look at this a moment, for the word contains for us a secret we must learn if we would make progress northward. “Forgetting the things which are behind.” “Remembering” is a favorite Bible word. We are constantly exhorted to remember, and urgently counseled not to forget. It is perilous to forget—to forget God, to forget the divine commandments. We are not to forget our past sinful condition, lest we grow proud. We are not to forget God’s goodness and mercy, lest our love shall grow cold. But there is a sense also in which our only hope is in forgetting. We never can get on to higher things if we insist on clinging to our past and carrying it with us. We can make progress only by forgetting. We can go forward only by leaving behind what is past.
For instance, we must forget our mistakes. There are many of them, too. We think of them in our serious moods, at the close of a year, when we are forced to review our past, or when some deep personal experience sets our life before us in retrospection. We sigh, “Oh, if I had not made that foolish decision! If I had not let that wrong companionship into my life! If I had not gone into that wretched business which proved so unfortunate! If I had not blundered so in trying to manage my own affairs! If I had not taken the bad advice which has led me into such hopeless consequences, how much better my life would have been!”
Some people keep compassing regretfully the same mountains of their one year’s mistakes through all the following year. They do little but fret over their errors all the months which they ought to make bright with better things, nobler achievements, loftier attainments. But what good comes of it? Worry undoes no folly, corrects no mistakes, brings back nothing you have lost. A year of fretting sets you no farther forward. The best use you can possible make of last year’s blunders is to forget them, and then to learn wisdom from the experience for this year. Remembering them, keeping them before you in painful regret—will only make you less strong for avoiding them hereafter. To err is human. We learn by making mistakes. Nobody ever does anything perfectly the first time he tries it. The artist spoils yards of canvas and reams of paper in mastering his art. It is the same in living. It takes most of a lifetime to learn how to do work passably well.
There is a way also by which our mistakes may be made to work good for us. We can so deal with them that they shall be made to yield good instead of evil. We well know, that many of life’s best things in character and attainment have come out of blunders and follies. We owe far more than we know to our blunders. One day Ruskin was with a friend who, in great distress, showed him a fine handkerchief on which some one had carelessly let fall a drop of ink. The woman was vexed beyond measure at the hopeless ruining of her handkerchief. Ruskin said nothing, and took the handkerchief away with him. In a few days he brought it back—but ruined no longer. Using the blot as the base of a drawing, he had made an exquisite bit of India-ink work on the handkerchief, thus giving it a beauty and a value far beyond what it possessed before it had been blotted.
There is a strange power in the divine goodness which can take our mistakes and follies, and out of them bring beauty, blessing, and good. Forget your blunders, put them into the hands of Christ, leave them with him to deal with as he sees fit, and he will show them to you afterward as marks of loveliness, no longer as blunders, but as the very elements of maturation. Forget your mistakes and turn northward!
We should forget our hurts. There are many hurts in every life. Somebody did you harm last year. Somebody was unkind to you, and left a sting in your memory. Somebody said something untrue about you; falsely maligned you; misrepresented you. You say you cannot forget these hurts, these injuries, these wrongs. But you would better. Do not nourish them. Only worse harm will come to you, from keeping them in your memory and thinking about them. Do not let them rankle in your heart. The Master forgot the wrongs and injuries done to him, and you have not suffered the one-thousandth part of the things he suffered from others. He loved on as if no wrong had been done to him. A few moments after a boat has ploughed the water, the bosom of the lake is smooth again as ever. So it was in the heart of Jesus after the most grievous injuries had been inflicted upon him. Thus should we forget the hurts done to us. Only worse hurt will come to us through our continuing to brood over our mistreatments. Crimes have been inspired by remembering wrongs. But hurts forgotten in love, become new adornments in the life. A tiny grain of sand in a pearl oyster makes a wound; but instead of running to a festering sore, the wound becomes a pearl! So a wrong, patiently endured, mastered by love, adds new beauty to the life!
We should also forget our attainments—the things we have achieved, our successes. Nothing hampers and hinders a man more than thinking over the good or great things he has done in the past. There is many a man, who never achieved much worth while after doing one or two really worthy or beautiful things. The elation spoiled him, and that was the end of what might have been a fine career. There are men who once did a good thing, and have done little since but tell people about it. They have been compassing their Mount Seir many days. If you did anything good, worthy, or great in the past, forget it! It belongs to last year and adorned it, but it will not be an honor for this year. Each year must have its own adornments. However fine any past achievements of ours may have been, they should be forgotten and left behind. We are to go on to perfection, making every year better than the one before. Dissatisfaction with what we have done, spurs us ever to greater things in the future!
We should forget also the sins of the past. Somehow, many people think that their sins are the very things they never should forget. They feel that they must remember them, so that they shall be kept humble. But remembering our sins, weaving their memories into a garment of sackcloth and wearing it continually, is the very thing we ought not to do! Do we not believe in the forgiveness of our sins, when we have repented of them? God tells us that our sins and our iniquities he will remember no more, forever! We should forget them, too, accepting the divine mercy, and since they are so fully forgiven by our Father, our joy should be full.
One of the Psalms tells us of being brought up out of a horrible pit, and our feet set upon a rock. Then comes the song beginning, “He hath put a new song in my mouth” (Psalm 40:3)—rejoicing instead of hopeless grief over sin! Brood not a moment over your old sins. Compass the mountain no longer, but turn northward! Turn your penitence into consecration. Burn out the shame of your past evil, in the fires of love and new devotion.
These are suggestions of the meaning of Paul’s secret of noble life. Of course we should never leave behind us and throw away anything that is good and beautiful. The blossom fades and falls, but from it comes the fruit. In the most transient experiences there are things which remain: influences, impressions, inspirations, elements of beauty, glimpses of better things. These we should keep as part of life’s permanent treasure. Paul did not mean that in forgetting the things that were behind, he threw away the wisdom of godly experience. In leaving the mountain and turning northward, the people did not leave the mountain behind them—they carried it with them. One never can forget a mountain nor lose the gifts it puts into one’s life.
But all that is evanescent and transient is to be forgotten, left behind, while we move on to new things. Forget the things that are behind. Move entirely out of the past. It is gone and you have nothing whatever more to do with it. If it has been unworthy, it should be abandoned for something worthy. If it has been good, it should inspire us to things yet better. “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” Paul also teaches this in the other word which he uses in his plan of progressive life. First, forget everything that is past. Then stretch forward to what is ahead.
What are these things that are ahead, to which we ought to stretch? The answer may be given in a word—life. Jesus told his disciples he had come that they might have life. We have no life until we receive it from Christ. Christ is the fountain from which all life flows. His own heart broke on the cross—that we might receive life—his life. Nothing will meet our need but life. A picture may seem perfect, but it is only a picture; it has no life.
There is a story of a sculptor who had chiseled a marble statue of a man. Michelangelo was asked to see it. He stood before the marble and was amazed at the success of the young artist. Every feature was perfect. The brow was massive. Intelligence beamed from the eyes. One foot was in the act of moving as if to step forward. Gazing at the splendid marble figure, Michelangelo said, “Now, march!” No higher compliment could the great artist have paid the sculptor. Yet there was no response. The statue was perfect in all the form of life, but there was no life in it. It could not march. Just so, it is possible for us to have all the semblance of life in our religious profession, in our orthodoxy of belief, in our morality, in our Christian achievements, in our conduct, in our devotion to the principles of right and truth and yet not have life in us. Life is the great final blessing we should seek.
Not life merely—not just a little of it—but fullness of life. Jesus said he had come that we might have life and might have it abundantly. The turning northward was that the people might exchange the wilderness for Canaan. The wilderness meant emptiness, barrenness, sin’s bitter harvest. Canaan was a type of heaven on earth. What does turning northward mean for us today? It means a larger Christian life. Note some definite elements in its meaning:
We rejoice in all that God has done for us in the past. We are grateful for the blessings we have received. But we are only on the edge of the spiritual possibilities that are within our reach. We are in danger of sitting down in a sort of quiet contentment, as if there were no farther heights to be reached. “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” Northward is toward new and greater things, larger spiritual good, more abundant life. It means something intensely practical and real. It is a call to better life. We must be better men, better women, better Christians. We must be holier. The abundant life must be pure. One man wrote on a New Year’s eve, that he wanted to be a cleaner man in the new year than ever before. “How I long to be clean all through! What a blessed life that must be!” We need all and always to seek the same cleanness. It must begin within. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
A little story tells of a man who was washing a large plate glass in a show window. There was one soiled spot on the glass which defied all his efforts to cleanse it. After a long and hard rubbing at it, with soap and water, the spot still remained, and then the man discovered that the spot was on the inside of the glass. There are many people who are trying to cleanse their lives from stains by washing the outside. They cut off evil habits and cultivate the moralities, so that their conduct and character shall appear white. Still they find spots and flaws which they cannot remove. The trouble is within. Their hearts are not clean, and God desires truth in the inward parts.
There is a story of a mother who had lost a beautiful child. She was inconsolable, and, to occupy her hands with something about her beloved child, in order that she might find comfort, she began to color a photograph of the precious little one. Her fingers wrought with wonderful skill and delicacy, and at length the face in the photograph seemed to have in it all the winsome beauty of life. The child appeared to the mother to live again before her eyes. When the work was done, she laid the picture away for a time in a drawer. When she took it out by and by, to look at it, the face was covered with blotches and the beauty was sadly marred. Again the mother took her brush, and with loving skill painted out the spots and touched the picture afresh, until once more the face had all its winsome beauty. Then again the photograph was laid away, and when it was brought out the blotches were there as before. There was some fault in the paper on which the likeness was printed.
There are human lives which may be made to shine in the fairest beauty that Christian culture can produce. They may be freed from all that is coarse and unrefined. They may be nurtured into gentleness of manner and sweetness of spirit. Yet in certain experiences of testing, undivine qualities are brought out, unhallowed tempers and dispositions are revealed. The trouble is in the nature itself. Sin is still in the heart. The only way to be made perfect is to have the very springs of the life cleansed. “I long to be clean all through.” That is the kind of men and women we should pray to become. It was the lifelong prayer of Frances Willard, “O God make me beautiful within!” Think what spiritual beauty there would be in any church, what healing for the world, if all its members were thus made clean, through and through, if all were really beautiful within.
It is to this that we are called each New Year, for example, each birthday. We are summoned to leave our routine Christian life, the commonplace spirituality which has so long satisfied us, and turn northward. We are called to be saints—not when we are dead and our bodies have been buried out of sight—but now, while we are busy in the midst of human affairs, while we live and meet temptations every day, while men see us, and are touched and impressed by what we do. Shall we not give up and leave behind our conventional spirituality, our fashionable holiness, our worldly conformity—and be holy men, holy women, turning northward to get nearer to God?
We need to be always watchful lest we allow our spiritual life to deteriorate in its quality as we go on from year to year. This is especially one of the temptations of advancing old age. There seems less to live for, less to draw us onward and upward, and inspiration is apt to grow less strong. The best seems behind us, and zest for toil and struggle grows less keen. We yield to weariness, we relax our discipline and self-restraint, we do not so much mind the little slips, the minute neglects, the lowering of tone in feeling, in sentiment, in conduct. We are losing our life’s brightness and beauty, and we know it not. We allow ourselves to become less thoughtful, less obliging, less kindly, less forgetful of self, less charitable toward the mistakes of others, less tolerant of others’ faults and weaknesses. People to whom we have been a comfort in the past, begin to note a change in the degree of our congenialness and our spirit of helpfulness. We are not interested in the needs and troubles of others, as we used to be. Friends apologize for us by saying that we are not well, that we have cares and sufferings of our own, or that we are growing old. But neither illness nor age nor pain should make us less Christlike. Paul tells us that though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man should be renewed day by day. The true life within us should become diviner continually in its beauty, purer, stronger, sweeter, even when the physical life is wasting.
To all men there come, along the years, experiences that are hard to endure. Disappointments and misfortunes come, in one form or another. Business ventures do not always succeed. In some cases there are years of continual and repeated disaster. Ill health saps the energy and strength of some men, leaving them unequal to the struggle for success, and compelling them to drop out of the race. Life is hard for many people, and there are those who do not continue brave and sweet in the struggle. Some lose heart and become soured in experiences of adversity. Nothing is sadder than to see a man give way to disheartenment and depression, and grow contentious and gloomy or soured in spirit.
Renan, in one of his books, recalls an old French legend of a buried city on the coast of Brittany. With its homes, public buildings, churches, and thronged streets, it sank instantly into the sea. The legend says that the city’s life goes on as before down beneath the waves. The fishermen, when in calm weather they row over the place, sometimes think they can see the gleaming tips of the church spires deep in the water, and fancy they can hear the chiming of bells in the old belfries, and even the murmur of the city’s noises. There are men who, in their later years, seem to have an experience like this. The life of youthful hopes, dreams, successes, and joys had been sunk out of sight, submerged in misfortunes and adversities, vanished altogether. All that remains is a memory. In their discouragement they seem to hear the echoes of the old songs of hope and gladness, and to catch visions of the old beauty and splendor, but that is all. They have nothing real left. They have grown hopeless and bitter.
But this is not worthy living for one who is immortal, who was born to be a child of God. The hard things are not meant to mar our life—they are meant to make it all the braver, the worthier, the nobler. Adversities and misfortunes are meant to sweeten our spirits, not to make them sour and bitter.
We need to think of these things. There should be a constant gaining, never a losing in our spiritual life. Every year should find us living on a higher plane than the year before. Old age should always be the best of life, not marked by emptiness and decay, but by richer fruitfulness and more gracious beauty. Paul was growing old, when he spoke of forgetting things behind and reaching forth to things ahead. His best was yet to be attained. So it should always be with older Christian. We must ever be turning northward, toward fuller life and holier beauty. This can be the story of our experience, only if our life is hidden with Christ in God. Torn away from Christ, no life can keep its zest or its radiance.
Another phase of this call, as it comes to us in life’s quiet days, is to increased activity. We cannot fulfill our Master’s requirement for us as Christians, unless we are ready for self-denying devotion to service. A birthday or the beginning of a new year, is a most fitting time for renewed interest in Christian work. “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” That is, you have been going through the old rounds, living the old way, long enough. Is any one of us satisfied with the measure of work we have done for Christ during the past year, for example? “Laborers for Christ,” is the rule of the kingdom. The work of the church is not meant to be done by a few special people. Some portion of it is to be done by each one, and that portion is not transferable. No one can do your work for you, for each one has enough of his own to fill his hands. No one can get any other to do his allotted task for him. All anyone can do is his own little part. Are there any of us who have done nothing?
We need not press the question for the past, for what has not been done in its proper time cannot be done now. The hands that have been idle through a past year can do nothing in the new year to make up the lack. If you have left a blank where there ought to have been beautiful work done, there can be only a blank there forever. You cannot fill it now. Toil as you will any new year, you cannot make the year you left empty anything but empty. We cannot go back over our life and do omitted or neglected duties. Shall we not cease going round and round in the same little grooves, and turn northward, with our faces toward God and heaven? Our Master is not exacting—he does not require of us what we cannot do. All expected of anyone is his part, what he can do. No one is required to do the work of the whole world, but everyone is required to be faithful in his own place. Someone has said, “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light I have.”
We get into the habit of talking about Christian life and work, as if it were something altogether apart from common work, the work we do on our business days. But if we are living as we should, everything we are called to do is work for Christ. We need heavenly grace for our secular tasks and duties, quite as much as for our religious services and occupations. We need grace for all our life on earth, not only for our worship, our religious activities, our Christian service, but for our business affairs, our amusements, all our tasks and duties, our home matters, our plans and pleasures. The smallest things in our lives should get their inspiration from heaven.
Thus we are ever being called to a new life, a holier life, a larger life of better service. “You have gone around this mountain long enough: turn northward.” Break away from the routine. Do not keep on doing only what you have been doing so far. Do not be content to go over the same old rounds. Turn northward—start out in new lines, with your face toward God. Do larger things than you have done before. Pray more fervently. Love better, more sweetly, more helpfully. Let Christ have all your life. Do not merely go round the mountain’s base—climb up its side! Every time you compass it, gain a little higher range, get nearer heaven, nearer God.
We never should forget with what sympathy Heaven looks down upon us continually. God is not a hard master. He knows how frail we are. He remembers that we are dust. Therefore He is patient with us. He judges us graciously. If we try to do our best, though from an earthly perspective we may seem to fail, marring our work, He understands and praises what we have done. “Your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58) With such a master we should never lose heart, never grow discouraged, never become depressed, never let gloom or bitterness into our heart, but should always keep brave, hopeful, sweet, forgetting the past and stretching forward!
“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”