Chapter 20 of Soul-Help Papers
than a past scaffolding of life
retained with God afar off.2
If we notice the story of the lives about us, not to say much of our own, we see there enters therein much of the unwelcome and unsought. Life goes not in the expected, but in the unexpected channel. The road seems to turn almost directly from the route mapped out for it. All predictions and prophecies seem to have miscarried. Expectations have not been realized. Life has not brought or fulfilled expected prophecies. The soul is thrust out—all unprepared for its surroundings—into what appears to be a barren land, and all roads run crosswise and contrary to every expectation.
Let me clothe some real life under different names and embellished, but nevertheless real, circumstances. Facts will still be facts and relations real relations, even if names and localities are changed so as to avoid personalities and unkind reflections. Anyway, give me the benefit of thinking I am not dealing in the realm of imagination.
In 1878 I knew a beautiful young life, full of hope, bright with promise, well cherished in a well-ordered Christian home, and just starting out in life’s career from the last days of school life. On every side promise seemed bright, with unusual indications. Health was perfect in every respect. There was beauty of person and beauty of life. There was charm of manner and queenly bearing of being and spirit. No sign of dissipation, no wasted energy, no sign of inherited disease marred the glow of health and physical movements of body. After a few years this fair young life found a lover and companion in a schoolmate well known and respected. Both were Christians. Soon they married. Life moved on, as it usually does under such favorable circumstances, in love and harmony. After a few years the husband began to show signs of failing health. Alarmed, they sought the higher elevation and purer air of the Western mountains. The relief was not sufficient, though it retarded the progress of the disease. After a while there was a grave on the mountainside, and a lonely-hearted wife with a sweet little daughter. The unexpected and undesired had begun to come into a life for which there seemed, to human eyes, to be no reasonable excuse. The demon of drink or some other miserable demon often comes in to wreck lives, but here there were no apparent signs of the past uncovering themselves to mar the ongoing of these lives. Still the overshadowing came. The incomprehensible sorrow and separation thrust itself in as an apparent intruder. Life’s fair vision faded. The crossroads came into life all unexpected. When there are no past records coming up as the cause for such sorrows, life, though sobered and full of sorrow, is never crushed in its resources. Sanctified sorrow gave richness to that life and deepened its spirituality. Under straitened circumstances, and thrown more on its own resources, it rose as out of partial oblivion into larger womanhood, wider effectiveness as a Christian, and an active place as a breadwinner. Life seemed to enlarge under the pressure.
After a number of years she married a man of former acquaintance, of a good family, and a professed Christian. Life for a long period seemed only real lover-life retained in family relationship. A few years more, and for what cause I know not, there came diverse feelings. The love-bond weakened. Alienation more or less entered. Somehow the broken links could not be mended. There seemed to be no “third party” interference or other common cause of this state of things. Again the unexpected had come into this life. Again the crossroads had come where they were not expected. Again love, which is life’s deepest and most essential life, suffered, and with it hopes and plans failed, so that life seemed a kind of riddle and perplexity. Unable to pray through it or work through it, she seemed tossed hither and thither in an uncertain sea and contrary winds. The horizon seemed full of storm, and the golden days had passed. Again had come the undesirable and the unexpected.
This is no fanciful sketch. I perceive that undesired and unexpected turns are very common experiences, with variations to suit the individual circumstances of different people. It is easy to ask, “Why all this?” It is harder to answer. Perhaps man cannot answer. Perhaps the tried soul cannot know the reason at the present time. Probably God hides the reason for a cause that shall appear later. Allow me to suggest some points for consideration in studying such cases.
- “What I do thou knowest not now,” said Jesus to Peter, when something was proposed which he did not understand.3 It is still so in all human lives. Life is full of mystery. Job repeats these words from the lips of Elihu, “Should it be according to thy mind?”4 God’s ways are as unsearchable as Himself. We can at best only know in part.5 I did not know what I was doing when I learned the alphabet. I had no idea that God would have me doing what I am doing today when I had to tussle with the trials of a schoolboy, or when I was held on the farm while having a body built that would stand the strain of all these years. I had no idea what He was preparing for me when He Himself sent me to the first holiness meeting I ever attended in my own study, where were only present God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, and me. I had no conception of what awaited me when He led me to the first National camp meeting at Cedar Rapids, Iowa,6 and put me in touch with the great leaders of the holiness movement. Why should I not also suppose that I have no proper conception of what He is preparing me for by that which He is now bringing me through? Keeping in touch with Him, I can know nothing so small as the present. Walking with Him, I shall never see anything less glorious than that I now see. Identified with Him and His interests in the world, I shall ever come to the greater, and approach the more glorious. I make no mistake in accepting what He sends, granted that I am in His order. No one can know that for which they are being prepared in the school of this life. God seems to seek to make us know that life is more than meat. Things may come and things may go, but there is always something greater than “things.” The special thing is the enlargement and upbuilding of life. That which does this most effectively is better known to the teacher than to us. Let us not blame Him because we are not yet able to be told why He sends us by the path He does.
- There is always a lot of life’s “belongings” that must be left behind us as the journey is pursued. We cannot part from these until weaned. The weaning belongs in the places of testings and disappointments. Every soul comes to the place where it realizes for itself it must leave its
…outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea7
and build the “more stately mansions.”8 Leaving the outgrown in life’s progress is a delicate crossing. Sometimes there is not courage to do it. Dispensations, ages, experiences and institutions, and even people, serve their purpose with every human spirit, but can be outgrown and henceforth retained only as useless baggage. Yet how we cling to these! How we held on to school life; how we thought all that was desirable would fairly die when those associations closed! How homesick we used to get when away from the parental home! Yet the weaning was essential. Good as that home was, a time came when we had to leave that outgrown shell and build a life for ourselves.
Looking back, we see that our perception of life began with the trivial. Play was all we seemed made for at first, so far as we knew. When play merged into work we were not yet weaned from the play idea. (Some big grown folks in that respect are still in first childhood. They have never yet set about building the more stately mansions!) Later, when work lost its playfulness, and life’s great strain came on us and responsibilities flashed their importance on us, and when life’s eternal consequences and destinies rose in vision before us, and when the actual toil of maturity dawned on us, we began to realize how much of life’s earlier scaffolding was to be removed. The earlier notes in life’s poem are no longer heard in the melody. The confines of eternal day dawn in the soul’s horizon. Serious views of life predominate. Life’s great responsibilities are sighted in the distance, and the hands loosen from the lesser to grasp the greater. Living seems more solemn and grand, and perhaps awe-full, but it is not so much because of what is left behind, as because of what the glowing possibilities are.
In this period of life, when two souls who have traveled together for years in life’s lower measures come to the place of wider vision, and one has sight to behold and longs to build the “more stately mansions,” but the other still sighs for the leeks and onions of the Egypt life,9 it is not uncommon for interests to lose their previous hold and paths of divergence to begin. The entrance into life’s higher ministries is the signal for the abandonment of that which is less. Trouble of this kind is not so much a loss of love for each other as a rise in the volume of life in the one, and a spiritual stagnation in the other. Separation inheres in the measures of life each possesses. Lake Michigan cannot contain the Atlantic; so one is only a lake and the other an ocean. The difference is not a mutual quarrel; it is a difference in volume of being.
Another thought to have in mind is life’s prophetic aspect, “We know not what we shall be.”10 There is “a far more and exceeding eternal weight of glory”11 for which we are being fitted. Doubtless we are utterly unable to bear the idea now. It so transcends all we are yet able to conceive that God must kindly veil our eyes for the present, while we pass through the drill necessary to fit a shining of the countenance for the crown that is to be on the forehead. God as an artist makes not one useless stroke of mallet and chisel. The trial that for the present “seemeth to be… grievous”12 is the prophecy of that for which He is preparing you. Hear him say, “Thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.”13 So long as He wants you to continue in school, gladly consent. The deeper the studies, the higher the service to which you are called. The more utter the abandonment, the closer the divine companionship. Remember if He wants your best, it can only be so that you may have His best.When God offers Isaac, don’t cry for Ishmael.14 When God offers Canaan, don’t whine for Egypt. Don’t allow yourself to be bewildered when the pathway is desert, and there is neither quail nor manna in sight. Go with God to rugged Sinai, or with the Cloud and Pillar when it leads the vanguard outward into an unknown, arid desert. Presence with God is greater than a past scaffolding of life retained with God afar off. Go with God.
- The text itself is public domain. The original book, Soul-Help Papers, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2008 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's Soul-Help Papers. ↩
- Title image created using a photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger on https://unsplash.com/@eberhardgross. ↩
- John 13:7 ↩
- Job 34:33 ↩
- 1 Corinthians 13:9 ↩
- Attending this meeting, held in June 1873 by the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness, was the major turning point in Reid’s life and ministry. (Note: The NCMAPH was later known as the National Holiness Association.) ↩
- Reid quotes these lines from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem The Chambered Nautilus. ↩
- The phrase “more stately mansions” comes from the same poem. To make Reid’s point clearer, we present the last two stanzas of the ode, in which the poet draws inspiration from the discovery of an empty conch shell (“chambered nautilus”) on the beach:
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:
“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!”
- Reid juxtaposes Holmes’s noble aspiration (“more stately mansions”) with the ignoble cravings and complaints expressed in Numbers 11:5. ↩
- 1 John 3:2 ↩
- 2 Corinthians 4:17 ↩
- Hebrews 12:11 ↩
- John 13:7 ↩
- The allusion is to Genesis 21:10-12. ↩