George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
The Selective Power of Personality
Unto the pure all things are pure--Tit 1:15
Misapplications of Scripture
It would be an interesting but a melancholy study to consider the texts of Scripture which have been misapplied. It would not only illuminate many a heresy; it would lead also to the secret springs of conduct. Some misapplications we should group together as arising from the imperfections of our version. Others we should find taking their rise in the sinful bias of the will. Others rather owe their origin to the proverbial character of certain words of Scripture and to the constant tendency of men to use proverbs in a mistaken way. It takes more wit to use a proverb wisely than it took originally to coin that proverb. It is far easier to strike out an apothegm than in some complex moment to apply it. Hence is it that certain words of Scripture, our present text being one of them, are in real danger of misapplication.
The Text Does Not Mean that There Is No Objective Evil
Have we not all heard these words misapplied? The commonest misuse of them is when something offensive has been spoken, something coarse or allusively indecent, and someone with a hot heart has protested against the evil remark. Immediately, sometimes with a smile or more often with the suspicion of a sneer, he is told that unto the pure all things are pure. The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose, and such a citation is the devil's handiwork. Our text does not mean that good and evil have their being in our thoughts about them. There are things that are everywhere and always right, and there are things that are everywhere and always wrong, and there is little hope for any man who has learned to tamper with these immutables. A deadly fever is not less infectious because I am fortified against it by some antidote. It is still deadly, in its inherent virulence, though I may be immune against its ravages. Even though every mind were as pure as the unsullied snow upon the Alps, there would still be things that were indecent. In a bare and literal sense, it is not true that unto the pure all things are pure. Unto the pure, till the last trumpet sounds, there will be words and actions that are horrible. It is that conviction which inspires the home and gives stability to nations, and when it is lost in a degenerate charity, the day of moral decadence has come.
What We Are Affects Our Interpretation of What Is Going on Around Us
What then is the true meaning of our text? Well, it is something of this kind. It is the inspired if proverbial expression of the selective power of personality. Everything with which we come in contact carries a large diversity of meaning. There is nothing we meet with in our daily walk but is capable of different interpretations. And how we shall interpret all that wealth and what we shall see in it as it steals by, all that is really determined by what we are. By all the influences that played on us in childhood and all the activities of our maturer years, by every battle we have quietly fought and every burden we have bravely borne, by the unhindered trend of leisure thought, by temptation, friendship, religion, you and I, whether for weal or woe, have forged out our personality. It is the only thing that we possess really yet-it is something more than a possession. It is by that, and that alone, that we interpret everything around us. All the wonder of the sky and sea, all the experience of light and shadow, all the countless activities of life, are accepted and interpreted by that. It is not in the light of the wisdom of the ages that you and I read the drama on life's stage. Far few men have ever learned that wisdom; and those who have, have learned it all too late. It is in the light of all we have made of ourselves in quiet years and immemorial days when we prayed God to give us strength to stand or yielded to the importunity of sin. By that we see--by that we read--by that we interpret God and man and everything. That is the key which unlocks every door opening on to the riches of the universe. And that, I take it, was in the apostle's mind when, brooding deeply upon this life of ours, he said, moved by the Holy Ghost, unto the pure all things are pure.
Interpretation of Nature
Now let us carry that thought into one or two spheres, and first let us think of nature. One of the noblest odes in literature is the ode of Coleridge written at sunrise at Chamounix. The poet is gazing upwards at the Alps, and he hears a mighty song of praise to God. The torrent praises Him; the eagle praises Him; the forest of pine and the snowy summit praise Him. There is no discord in that mighty chorus--"earth with her thousand voices praises God." But now there comes reeling on to that same scene some poor drunkard with his sodden brain. And the same torrents are sounding in his ears, and the same peaks are white against the heaven. But for ruined him, by his vice and fashioned by his past into a beast, neither in cataract nor snow nor forest is there heard one syllable of heaven. Both look on the same mystic dawn moving on tiptoe where man hath never trod; both hear the rush and swirl of the one river that hurries from the everlasting snow. And to one it is the echo of that song which was sung in the high heaven when Christ was born; to the other it is the echo of despair. In other words, faced by this wondrous world, you and I always get just what we bring. We see its power and glory through the eye, but never do we see them with the eye. We see them with all that we have made ourselves--with every coveting and every conquering--with every virtue that has been wrestled for and every passion that has been brought to heel. That is why places which speak to one of peace, speak to another of sinful opportunity. That is why sky and sea to one are paradise and to another are but air and water. That is why, in apostolic thought, unto the pure all things are pure.
Interpretation of Language
The same thought also applies to language just as truly as it applies to nature. Through all the range of it, language is colored by the abiding mystery of what we are. It might well seem to the casual observer that there were few things more fixed and definite than words. The fact that there are such books as dictionaries argues for the stability of words. And yet those words, which we are always using and which seem fixed and rigid as the hills--there is scarce one of them but is affected subtly by this tremendous fact of personality. In every term we use there is some shade of meaning which has never quite been caught by other men. There is some suggestion that is all our own, whether it be a high suggestion or an evil one. And the point is that all that verbal coloring, which gives to our words an individuality, springs from the kind of life we have experienced and have been forging in the dark. It is in that sense I the character we understand our Lord when He says that by our words we shall be judged. If we are but drawing on a common stock, I can find in our words no principle of judgment. But if on the common language that we use we cast the shadow of our deepest self, then in our words, when all the .books are opened, there will be more of revelation than we dream. It is a truth of widest application that the style is the man. It is true of Shakespeare and of Browning, but it is also true of you and me. We take the words the dictionary gives us, and then we so mold them by our secret self that the day is coming, if Christ is to be credited, when by our words we shall be judged. To put it otherwise, all mastery of language is at the heart of it a moral business. It is not merely an artistic victory; it is a moral and spiritual victory. He who has conquered words and made them serve him so that they throng to him in power and beauty has conquered things more powerful than words in the secret battle-places of the soul. Behind the glory of the words of Ruskin lies the moral enthusiasm of Ruskin. There is the pressure of a dauntless courage in the superb carelessness of Walter Scott. And who does not feel, in reading Stevenson, the presence of these very qualities which made that life of his, with all its suffering, such a quietly heroic thing. Unto the pure all things are pure. It is the inward self that shapes the instrument. It casts its shadow whether for weal or woe on the universal heritage of speech. And that is why, let me it--when the day of reckoning is come, we are told by again repeat one who ought to know that by our words we shall be judged. Now if that be largely true of all speech, it is especially true of the great words we use. It is true, for instance, in a very solemn way of the greatest of all words, God. In the Shorter Catechism, when we were children we learned the answer to the question, "What is God?" Some of us can repeat that answer still, and it would be hard to match in its sublimity. Yet it is not the light of any catechism that has lit up for us the name of God; It is the light of the life we have experienced since we were cradled at our mother's knee, knew a little girl in an orphanage who would never sing a hymn with Father in it. Her father had been a drunken ruffian, and in her wretched home he used to beat her. And she had taken all that childish sorrow and had carried it up into the gates of heaven so that for her there was a cry of terror in the sweetest and tenderest name of God. It is thus that that great name is molded for us. It is colored by the hand of memory. It comes to us impoverished or enriched by all that home has been and all that church has been. That is why God to one means everything; that is why to another it means nothing. That is why to one it is a name of terror and to another of infinite encouragement. No definition of the wisest catechism shall ever tell what God is to the soul. It is the soul itself which answers that.
Interpretation of Human Life
Passing from language, I would note again that the same thought applies to human life. In the selective power of personality is the secret of our estimate of conduct. It is one of the commands of the New Covenant--"Judge not, that ye be not judged." That is a warning which we all need against censorious or hasty judgments. But you must remember that Christ never meant by these words to disapprove of the faculty of judgment; as a matter of fact we are so constituted that each of us is judging all the time. Every action, whether small or great, is summoned imperiously to our judgment-bar. Swiftly, instinctively, unhesitatingly, we pronounce sentence on it there. We do it every day a hundred times, and do it we must if we are to be men, for it is that faculty of moral judgment which separates us from the beasts that perish. Now there are certain acts so clearly good that the worst of men cannot but admire them; and there are other acts so clearly bad that they are universally condemned. But in between these two extremes lies a whole world of effort and accomplishment, and how we shall judge all that when it confronts us, depends on the deep fact of what we are. There is nothing that reaches us but has its contact with the life which is lying hidden in the soul. It touches secret forms of hope and passion which we thought were dead but which were only sleeping. And it is all that hope and all that passion and all the complex whole that we call self which passes sentence on the acts of men as they rise up for judgment in the gate. In other words, when we are judging others we are passing silent judgment on ourselves. Things will be mean to us if we are mean. Things will be great to us if we be great. By all we have struggled for with many a failure, by every ideal we have lost or won, by hidden lust, by secret sham, do we interpret the drama of mankind. Give me a man who has lived for ten years purely, and he shall find purity on every hand. Give me a man whose life has been a mockery, and all the world shall be a mockery to him. In every sneer, in every commendation, in every word of praise or word of blame, we are but registering what, we have made of life since our feet were on the uplands of the dawn. There came a poor woman once, with hair disheveled, and she anointed the feet of Christ with ointment. Do you remember how diversely that act was viewed by the guests who were reclining at the table? To One of them it was a deed of love that was to be told wherever the Gospel should be preached; to another it was the wild extravagance of an impulsive and abandoned woman. Both looked on the same vase of alabaster; both watched the moving of the same white fingers; but the one who looked upon the deed was Judas, and the other was the Son of God. And in their looks, swift as a swallow's flight--different from each other as night from day--there is a glimpse into that awful gulf which parted the betrayer from his Lord. Unto the pure all things are pure. We see by all that we have become. If we have lived disloyally like Judas, then shall we look upon a sorry spectacle. But if it has been "the utmost for the highest" as it was with Him whom we adore, then may we also catch the gleam of splendor in the ointment lavished on the feet.
What We Are Influences Our Actions in Society
In closing I ask you to observe that we have here the secret of social influence. It is a well-known fact that just to see the best has a strange power of calling out the best. Arnold of Rugby believed so in his boys that they grew ashamed to tell a lie to him. Men have a curious and subtle way of answering to our expectations of them so that oftentimes they will act honorably because they are assured we think they are honorable. To see the finest, in a world like this, is a sure way of evoking what is fine. It was in such a confidence that Jesus worked in His mighty task of bringing in the kingdom. If then we have power by what we see and if what we see depends on what we are, I say that the most urgent of all social duties is the duty of a man to his own soul. I have no faith in any social service that springs from careless and unworthy character. There cannot be any vision in such service, and without vision service is in vain. We need a heart that scorns what is contemptible and clings tenaciously to the highest if men and women are to feel the touch that helps them to be better than themselves. Unto the pure all things are pure. We see the best, and to make it so. Every victory we win alone is aiding our brother to help be a better man. Don't say you can do nothing for your fellows; you can do more for your fellows than many a noisy demagogue by being patient, loyal, true, and pure in the life which no human eye can see.
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