An Infidel's Prayer
by John Dickie
ON leaving school to enter on the realities of life in a distant city, I was left very much to mine own inexperience for guidance; for I had just lost my last parent, and there was no one who had a special interest in taking charge of me. I was therefore suffered to fall into dangers which the slightest supervision might easily have spared me. Perhaps, the very greatest of these arose from being thrown much among infidels in the lodging-houses in which my lot was cast. Among the first of these companions was a young man, many years, however, my senior, moderately intelligent, perfectly moral, so far as I knew, but very decided in his infidel views. His creed was a series of the most dismal and freezing negatives; and really it is as shocking thing to see the poor demented man, in his mournful insanity of heart, turn willfully away from the light, and love, and joy of God's evangel; flee from the Divine mercy that pursues him, as the never hunted hare fled from the yelling hounds; and seek a shelter from the tender love of Jesus in such a hideous region of utter non-entities and shadows. Without any caricature, the creed of my unbelieving room-mate might, in its findings, be fairly stated thus: "I do not believe in God, but I believe in man, and especially in myself. I do not believe the Bible, but I believe man's science and philosophy. I have no faith in the intelligence or honesty of Christians, and especially of Christian ministers, but I have great faith in the general excellency of man, and believe that the evil which he does is the result of his circumstances, acting on his organization; and that therefore he is scarcely to be blamed. I know nothing of the future, and seek to live only for the present."
With the zeal of his class, he sought to indoctrinate me with his own pestilent notions, and lost no opportunity of setting before me abundance of alleged contradictions in Scripture, and absurdities in doctrine. Of course, a raw, inexperienced youth was no match on such questions for one who had studied his own side of them for years; but, above all else, the remembrance of my dear mother's death-bed, and of her most manifest experience of unseen spiritual realities, kept my heart at least fixed in the confidence that God's sweet "story of grace" was a true story after all. But whatever might be the impression which my companion had been able to make on my mind by his alleged scriptural inconsistencies, it was soon far more than neutralized by a huge inconsistency of his own. And thus it happened----His occupation was one which exposed him to violent alternations of heat and cold; and one day he came home ill with some inflammatory disorder, for which he had to be bled, and otherwise pretty severely treated. He was very quiet, and his spirits seemed to be low enough for the two or three days during which he suffered. I said little to him. Alas! I could not; for though I could debate with him about such outside matters as evidences and doctrines, I could not even attempt to lead the dark and moody soul past the altar, and past the laver, and through the holy place into the holiest of all, opened up for believing sinners by the blood of Jesus, for I had not found out for myself this blessed road within the veil. And so, beyond proposing to him to read a chapter, which he declined, I could do nothing more.
On the third night of his illness, I was awakened by a loud and continuous whisper on the pillow beside me, and became speedily aware that it was my poor bed-fellow in distress of soul, pouring out his anguish in fervent prayer to God. It was one of the most earnest prayers I have ever heard. Feeling the impropriety of listening, and at the same time unwilling to disturb him, I turned away my head and tried to sleep again, but that earnest whisper compelled me to hear. He was no infidel now. He believed in God— believed and, like the devils, trembled. He believed the Bible, at least in its awful threatenings, without being in the least perplexed by its inconsistencies, or troubled about the hypocrisy or craft of men. He was troubled only about himself, and with words of severe self-condemnation he confessed his sins. His only entreaty was to be spared. Over and over again he lifted up his cry for another opportunity, just one more, and he promised, vowed, all but swore it, that if God would try him this once, only once, he would waste life no longer, but live as he had never done. And who shall say that this despairing cry for pity was not heard? Oh, how very gracious is the infinitely gracious One! Even the terror-extorted cry of an impenitent Ahab was heard (I Kings xxi. 30); and in all ages, God "full of compassion" has often listened to the misery of men who only "howled upon their beds" (Hos. vii. 14). And so, perhaps, it was in answer to this prayer that when the doctor came he was able to pronounce the patient improving, and to relax his treatment. The sick man's spirits rose immensely, and his improvement went on rapidly. In the evening he was very cheerful and began to discourse of the perfect calm with which he had been able to look at death in the face, and to contrast it with the terrors of Christians generally, who in spite of all that was boasted about it, could seldom meet death with an equanimity like his. All this was too much for me, so I told him that it was a terrible thing to trifle with God as he was doing, and then I mentioned his prayer during the night. He was very angry, vehemently denied it, vapoured about his immaculate sincerity, whatever might be his other failings, and said that if he thought there was in his body a single inch that could act so deceitfully, he would take a knife and cut it out with loathing. Poor man! I saw perfectly what he was. All his past words were now to me but idle wind; and this was the first, though by no means the last case in which I have been indebted to the infidel for an "aid to faith."
This simple little narrative shows us, I think, the utter worthlessness of infidelity to meet man's urgent wants in the hour of his sore extremity. It may suffice for health—anything may be made to do then—but it can give no strength, and utter no words of cheer, to a dying heart. Alas! what pains do men take to lay up wretchedness and poverty for a death-bed, when less trouble would secure for it all the riches of God's love, and all the comforts of Christ's presence.
"The danger they discern not, they deny;
Laugh at the only remedy, and die."
What a melancholy thing it is to face an angry God and an undone eternity with a lie, or at best with no thing. A recent convert from the most virulent infidelity told me that in his soberer moments he had been often affected by the words of one of their female lecturers on her death-bed. Her friends had been urging her to hold on to the last, when the dying woman said, "Yes; I have no objection to holding on, but will you tell me what I am to hold on by?" Ah, there is the fatal want. Infidelity gives nothing to hold on by— no mighty arm to lean on—no gentle hand to grasp—no loving bosom on which to rest an aching head—no "mouth most sweet" dropping its honeyed words of comfort, and sweetening the bitterness of death with the blessedness of a heaven begun. No, no, infidelity has none of these, and offers no substitute for them. It mocks the needy soul by giving it simply nothing! Alas, that men can be found so insanely wicked as actually to prefer the cold and cheerless delusion to all the joyous realities of a heavenly Father's love.
This little narrative may also teach the young the folly of delaying repentance till a death-bed. A death-bed! What will a death-bed do for you? What did it do for this man? Its terrors only drove him into the most frightful self-deception; and its terrors might drive you too into a deceiving and constrained homage; but of itself, of itself, it can do nothing more. Oh, take the most urgent counsel of all who have had experience in such matters, and think not of running a risk so desperate with a stake so precious as your immortal soul. And why run it? Why struggle against the love of the Lord Jesus as men have never struggled against the cruel yoke of a tyrant? How mournfully are you meeting the wonderful grace of your Redeemer, when, so often as the alternative is presented to you of Christ or the world, you in every case choose the world and let the Saviour go; and it is only when at last the alternative is thrust upon you of Christ or hell, that you can bring your mind to accept of Jesus, but only as a something better than everlasting burnings! Oh, seek rather the happier choice of the saint, who searching through heaven and over earth, sees nothing in either comparable to Him whom his soul loveth, and cries out, "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none on earth that I desire beside Thee."
And this narrative suggests to each of us most grave and profitable thoughts about the awful, I had almost said the infinite, deceivableness of the human heart. It is "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" Like the unsearchable depths of God's perfections (Job xi. 7), or the unsearchable riches of Christ's grace (Eph. iii. 8), the profundities of man's deceit can be fully fathomed by no eye but One (Jer. xvii. 9, 10). Oh, my reader, have you yet learned this fact, not in books only, not in the Bible only, but in your tearful experience of your own heart as well?
This poor deluded man was not the infidel he thought himself to be. He was only what Pascal calls a "mere counterfeit and hypocrite in atheism." In spite of himself, God had reserved in his inmost heart a witness for the truth, a witness that constrained belief, though this belief had in it no blessing, and wrought no salvation. He had tried to be wholly an infidel. He thought he was wholly an infidel. He professed the most sincere and whole-hearted unbelief. Yet it was not really so. And you, my reader, who have thought yourself to be a Christian, and have professed yourself to be a Christian, are you what you think you are, or is it not quite possible that like him you may be only self-deceived? We know from Scripture that there are in every age multitudes who think themselves to be believers, and who profess to be believers, but who, nevertheless, shall at last be found to be deceived. I know not a more mournful sign of many than the fatal facility with which they take this for granted. Will you then, beloved reader, put this man into your mental microscope, and examine most searchingly the enormous power of self-deception in his case; and will you then take the candle of the Lord, and with it, on your knees, search the innermost parts of your own heart to see if there be in you any similar root of bitterness. Would you trust your business or your money to an untried "ticket-of-leave?" And yet, how many are trusting their eternal treasures to the fancied sincerity of hearts which are more lying and deceitful than all the convicted criminals on earth.
"Alas, security, security is the bane and ruin of the most part of the world," says Rutherford; and had he lived now he might have mourned over a security quite as reckless as that of his own day. Men still as then are "taking Christ by guess." "Half con-versions," says Baxter, "are the undoing of many thousand souls." And oh, how easily are men satisfied with half conversions! Not many are whole hearted and decided either in their faith or their unbelief. The most effect a miserable compromise between the two, and give up the tongue and the intellect, the sphere of professions and of opinions and of formal creeds to God and to his truth; while the holy of holies of the heart, and the main currents of the life are all surrendered to the most stubborn but unsuspected unbelief. Oh that God himself would strip off the self-deceiving mask from every deceived one.
It is not meant by all this to send you into your own heart to seek a warrant for your comfort. No, but to send you out of it, as out of a Bridewell cell, (a prison in Liverpool) to seek your every- thing in Jesus. Trust in His truthfulness, but trust nothing to your own. He that so little knows himself that he can yet trust in his own heart is still "a fool" (Prov. xxviii. 29). You know the gospel truth in measure; it is well. Ah! but have you through and beyond this truth learned to know the Saviour? You understand the way of life; well, but are you as a consequence humbly walking in it! You can explain all the doctrines connected with salvation, but is your heart really eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of man? Unless it be so, his own word assures you that whatever else you may have, you have not life (John vi. 53). Look at yourself, look at your Saviour as God's word reveals both to you; and if you do, you will rejoice that while you cannot trust in men around you, you can trust in God above you; and that while you can trust least of all your own lying heart within you, you can put unlimited confidence in the least of the words of Him who is "faithful and true" (Rev. xix. 11). "Self-jealousy," says dear old Henry, "is the first step towards self-deliverance." Let us then deal with ourselves as with convicted deceivers who are "habit and repute". So are we charged to do by Him who knows us best, "Take heed, therefore, that the light which is in thee be not darkness" (Luke xi. 35).