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HOME > Short Stories > Spiritual Energies In Daily Life > CHAPTER III THE POWER THAT WORKETH IN US
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If we sprinkle iron filings over a sheet of paper and move a magnet beneath the paper, the filings become active and combine and recombine in a great variety of groupings and regroupings. A beholder who knows nothing of the magnet underneath gazes upon the whole affair with a sense of awe and mystery, though he feels all the time that there must be some explanation of the action and that some hidden power behind is operating as the cause of the groupings and regroupings of the iron particles. Something certainly that we do not see is revealing its presence and its power.
Our everyday experience is full of another series of activities even more mysterious than these movements of the iron. Whenever we open our eyes we see objects and colors confronting us and located in spaces far and near. What[36] brings the object to us? What operates to produce the contact? How does the far-away thing hit our organ of vision? This was to the ancient philosopher a most difficult problem, a real mystery. He made many guesses at a solution, but no guess which he could make satisfied his judgment. Our answer is that an invisible and intangible substance which we call ether—luminiferous ether—fills all space, even the space occupied by visible objects, and that this ether which is capable of amazing vibrations, billions of them a second, is set vibrating at different velocities by different objects. These vibrations bombard the minute rods and cones of the retina at the back of the eye and, presto, we see now one color and now another, now one object and now another. This ether would forever have remained unknown to us had not this marvelous structure of the retina given it a chance to break through and reveal itself. In many other ways, too, this ether breaks through into revelation. It is responsible apparently for all the immensely varied phenomena of electricity, probably, too, of cohesion and gravitation. Here, again, the revelations remained inadequate and without clear interpretation until we succeeded in constructing proper instruments and devices for it to break through into[37] active operation. The dynamo and the other electrical mechanisms which we have invented do not make or create electricity. They merely let it come through, showing itself now as light, now as heat, now again as motive power. But always it was there before, unnoted, merely potential, and yet a vast surrounding ocean of energy there behind, ready to break into active operation when the medium was at hand for it.
Life is another one of those strange mysteries that cannot be explained until we realize that something more than we see is breaking through matter and revealing itself. The living thing is letting through some greater power than itself, something beyond and behind, which is needed to account for what we see moving and acting with invention and purpose. Matter of itself is no explanation of life. The same elemental stuff is very different until it becomes the instrument of something not itself which organizes it, pushes it upward and onward, and reveals itself through it. Something has at length come into view which is more than force and mechanism. Here is intelligent purpose and forward-looking activity and something capable of variation, novelty, and surprise. And when living substance has reached a certain stage of organization, something higher[38] still begins to break through—consciousness appears, and on its higher levels consciousness begins to reveal truth and moral goodness. It is useless to try to explain consciousness—especially truth-bearing consciousness—as a function of the brain, for it cannot be done. That way of explanation no more explains mind than the Ptolemaic theory explains the movements of the heavenly bodies. Once more, something breaks through and reveals itself, as surely as light breaks through a prism and reveals itself in the band of spectral colors. This consciousness of ours, as I have said, is not merely awareness, not only intelligent response; it lays hold of and apprehends, i.e., reveals, truth and goodness. What I think, when I really think, is not just my private “opinion,” or “guess,” or “seeming”; it turns out to have something universal and absolute about it. My multiplication-table is everybody’s multiplication-table. It is true for me and for beyond me. And what is true of my mathematics is also true of other features of my thinking. When I properly organize my experience through rightly formed concepts, I express aspects that are real and true for everybody—I attain to something which can be called truth. The same way in the field of conduct: I can discover[39] not only what is subjectively right, but I can go farther and embody principles which are right not only for me but for every good man. Something more than a petty, tiny, private consciousness is expressing itself through my personality. I am the organ of something more than myself.
Perhaps more wonderful still is the way in which beauty breaks through. It breaks through not only at a few highly organized points, it breaks through almost everywhere. Even the minutest things reveal it as well as do the sublimest things, like the stars. Whatever one sees through the microscope, a bit of mould for example, is charged with beauty. Everything from a dewdrop to Mount Shasta is the bearer of beauty. And yet beauty has no function, no utility. Its value is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It is its own excuse for being. It greases no wheels, it bakes no puddings. It is a gift of sheer grace, a gratuitous largess. It must imply behind things a Spirit that enjoys beauty for its own sake and that floods the world everywhere with it. Wherever it can break through it does break through, and our joy in it shows that we are in some sense kindred to the giver and revealer of it.
Something higher and greater still breaks[40] through and reveals a deeper Reality than any that we see and touch. Love comes through—not everywhere like beauty, but only where rare organization has prepared an organ for it. Some aspects of love appear very widely, are, at least, as universal as truth and moral goodness. But love in its full glory, love in its height of unselfishness and with its passion of self-giving is a rare manifestation. One person—the Galilean—has been a perfect revealing organ of it. In his life it broke through with the same perfect naturalness as the beam of light breaks through the prism of waterdrops and reveals the rainbow. Love that understands, sympathizes, endures, inspires, recreates, and transforms, broke through and revealed itself so impressively that those who see it and feel it are convinced that here at last the real nature of God has come through to us and stands revealed. And St. Paul, who was absolutely convinced of this, went still further. He held, with a faith buttressed in experience, that this same Christ, who had made this demonstration of love, became after his resurrection an invisible presence, a life-giving Spirit who could work and act as a resident power within receptive, responsive, human spirits, and could transform them into a likeness to himself and continue[41] his revelation of love wherever he should find such organs of revelation. If that, or something like it, is true it is a very great truth. It was this that good old William Dell meant when he said: “The believer is the only book in which God himself writes his New Testament.”
There are few texts that have been more dynamic in the history of spiritual religion than the one which forms the keynote of the message of the little book of Habakkuk: “The righteous man lives by faith” (2:4). It became the central feature of St. Paul’s message. It was the epoch-making discovery in Luther’s experience, and it has always been the guiding principle of Protestant Christianity.
The profound significance of the words is often missed because the text is so easily turned into a phrase that is supposed just of itself to work a kind of magic spell, and secondly because the meaning of “faith” is so frequently misinterpreted. When we go back to the original experience out of which the famous text was born we[42] can get fresh light upon the heart of its meaning. The little book begins with a searching analysis of the conditions of the time. With an almost unparalleled boldness the prophet challenges God to explain why the times are so badly out of joint, why the social order is so topsy-turvy, and why injustice is allowed to run a long course unchecked. God seems unconcerned with affairs—the moral pilot appears not to be steering things.
Then comes a moment of mental relief. The prophet hits upon the conclusion, arrived at by other prophets also, that God is about to use the Chaldeans as a divine instrument to chastise the wicked element in the nation, to right the wrongs of the disordered world, and to execute judgment. But as he begins to reflect he becomes more perplexed than ever. How can God, who is good, use such a terrible instrument for moral purposes? This people, which is assumed to be an instrument of moral judgment in a disordered world, is itself unspeakably perverse. It is fierce and wolfish. Its only god is might. It cares only for success. It catches men, like fish, in its great dragnet, and “then he sacrificeth unto his net and burneth incense unto his drag.” How can such a pitiless and insolent people, dominated by pride and love of conquest, be used to work out the ends[43] of righteousness and to act for God who is too pure even to look upon that which is evil and wrong? Here the prophet finds himself suddenly up against the ancient problem of the moral government of the universe and the deep mystery of evil in it. He cannot untangle the snarled threads of his skein. No solution of the mystery lies at hand. He decides to climb up into his “watch-tower” and wait for an answer from God. If it does not come at once, he proposes to stay until it does come—“if it tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.” At length the vision comes, so clear that a man running can read it. It is just this famous discovery of the great text that a man cannot hope to get the world-difficulties all straightened out to suit him, he cannot in some easy superficial way justify the ways of God in the course of history; but, at least, he can live unswervingly and victoriously by his own soul’s insight, the insight of faith that God can be trusted to do the right thing for the universe which he is steering. It is beautifully expressed in a well-known stanza of Whittier’s:
“I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.”
Many things remain unexplained. The mysteries are not all dissipated. But I see enough light to enable me to hold a steady course onward, and I have an inner confidence in God which nothing in the outward world can shatter. This is the message from Habakkuk’s watch-tower: There is a faith which goes so far into the heart of things that a man can live by it and stand all the water-spouts which break upon him.
Josiah Royce once defined faith as an insight of the soul by which one can stand everything that can happen to him, and that is what this text means. You arrive at such a personal assurance of God’s character that you can face any event and not be swept off your feet. If this is so, it means that the most important achievement in a man’s career is the attainment of just this inner vision, the acquisition of an interior spiritual confidence which itself is the victory.
William James used often to close his lecture courses at Harvard with what he called a “Faith-ladder.” Round after round it went up from a mere possibility of hope to an inner conviction strong enough to dominate action. He would begin with some human faith which outstrips evidence and he would say of it: It is at least not absurd, not self-contradictory, and, therefore, it[45] might be true under certain conditions, in some kind of a world which we can conceive. It may be true even in this world and under existing conditions. It is fit to be true; it ought to be true. The soul in its moment of clearest insight feels that it must be true. It shall be true, then, at least for me, for I propose to act upon it, to live by it, to stake my existence on it.
This watch-tower of Habakkuk is a similar faith-ladder. He sees no way to explain why the good suffer, or to account for the catastrophes of history, but at least he has found a faith in God which holds him like adamant: “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.... He will make me to walk upon mine high places.” Faith like that is always contagious. The unshaken soul kindles another soul who believes in his belief, and the torch goes from this man on his watch-tower to St. Paul, and from him on to the great reformer, and then to an unnamed multitude, who through their soul’s insight can stand everything that may happen!
Some time ago I received a letter from a young minister who was about to settle for religious work in a large manufacturing town. He and I were strangers to each other in the flesh but friends through correspondence, and because we were kindred spirits he wrote to me to say: “I have before me the great work of living in the eternal God and in a humanity toiling in factories and shops. Oh, if I could only make the presence of the Eternal real to myself and to my people!” Another minister, laboring in a large suburb of New York City, also a stranger to me except through correspondence, wrote to say that he was glad for every voice which holds up before men the reality of the invisible Church and the idea of the universal priesthood of believers. These letters coming within a week—and they are samples of many similar ones—are signs of the times, and show clearly that thoughtful men all about us are done with the husk of religion and are devoting themselves to the heart of the matter. There is a deep movement under way which touches all denominations and is steadily[47] preparing in our busy, hurrying, materialistic America a true seed of the vital, spiritual religion that will later bear rich blossoms and ripe harvest.
I want for the moment to return to the central desire of the young minister, in the hope that it may inspire some of us, especially some of our young ministers who are facing their new spiritual tasks: “I have before me the great work of living in the eternal God and in a humanity toiling in factories and shops. Oh, if I could only make the presence of the Eternal real to myself and to them!”
It is perhaps a new idea to some that living in the eternal God is “work.” We are so accustomed to the idea that all that is required of us is a passive mind and a waiting spirit that we have never quite realized this truth: No person can live in the eternal God unless he is ready for the most intense activity and for the most strenuous life. Gladstone, in his old age, surprised his readers with his impressive phrase, “the work of worship.” The fact is, no man ever yet found his way into the permanent enjoyment of God along paths of least resistance or by any lazy methods. How many of us have been humiliated to discover, in the silence or in the service, that[48] nothing spiritual was happening within us. Our mind, unbent and passive enough, was like a stagnant pool, or, if not stagnant, was darting its feelers out and following in lazy fashion any line of suggestion which pulled it. Instead of finding ourselves “living in the eternal God” and in the high enjoyment of him, we catch ourselves wondering what the next strike will be, or thinking about the mean and shabby way some one spoke to us an hour ago! There is no use blaming a mind because it wanders—everybody’s mind wanders—but the real achievement is to make it wander in a region which ministers to our spiritual life; and that can be done only by getting supremely interested in the things of the Spirit. That is where the “work” lies; that is where the effort comes in. Attention is always determined by the fundamental interest. What we love supremely we attend to. It gets us, it holds us. One of the colloquial phrases for being in love with a person is “paying attention to” the person. It is a true phrase and goes straight to reality. If we are to discover and enjoy the eternal Presence we must become passionately earnest in spirit and glowing with love for the Highest.
My friend brings two important things together: He proposes to undertake the work of[49] living in the eternal God and in toiling humanity. The two things go together and cannot be safely separated. It is in the actual sharing of life through love and sympathy and sacrifice, in going out of self to feel the problems and difficulties and sufferings of others, that we find and form a life rich in higher interests and centered on matters of eternal value. A man who has traveled through the deeps of life with a fellow man comes to his hour of worship with a mind focused on the Eternal and with a spirit girded for the inward wrestling, without which blessings of the greater sort do not come. And every time such a man finds himself truly at home in the eternal God and fed from within, he can go out, with the strength of ten, to the tasks of toiling humanity. This is one of those spiritual circles which work both ways: He that dwells in God loves, and he that loves finds God, St. John tells us.
It is fine to see a strong man, trained in all his faculties, going to his work with the quiet prayer: “Oh, that I may make the presence of the Eternal real to myself and to my people.” It is a good prayer for all of us.

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