Brethren Archive

Exaggerations

by John Dickie


EVERY word of God is pure. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is therefore profitable." It is all inspired, all divinely fitted for man's spiritual need, with each portion of it perfectly adjusted to all the rest, that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works. At the same time, so far as spiritual guidance is concerned, no words but the words of God are to be accounted absolutely pure, therefore "add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar" (Prov. xxx. 5,6). The intelligent Christian, then, while on the one hand, he reverently listens to every word which God is pleased to speak to him, will on the other be tremulously careful not to add to the heavenly words, lest his own additions should mislead him, and in the end he should receive, not the divine approval, but the divine reproof.

Unless this spirit of reverent watchfulness be cherished, he shall be apt to fall into a common practice, which unhappily is as natural as it is common, and which succeeds in combining both the mistakes which have been already referred to. This is, to cream the Bible—to select out of it what we may be pleased to account its most precious portions; forgetting that "every word of God is pure," and that the Bible as it has been given to us, is altogether and only cream. When this spirit of irreverent eclecticism is indulged, it ends by furnishing the reader with a private Bible of his own—a book which in bulk, may be very much smaller than the Book of God, and which in its spiritual influence may differ as widely from the original Bible as one book can well differ from another. The mutilated Bible not only lacks much that is to be found in the other, but the missing portions are more than likely to be those very portions which are most urgently needed by the irreverent compiler, for his reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. But the evil does not end here. Those selected fragments which go to compose the abridged Bible, being now read apart from the connected truths which are essential to their profitable use, are sure to produce in the reader's mind, exaggerated and perverted notions of the subjects taught in them. These exaggerations become virtual additions to God's Word; and in this way, the reader dishonours the Bible nearly as much through the fragments of it which he idolatrously misuses, as through those portions of it which he presumptuously neglects.

The history of the Book of God, and of its treatment at the hands of men, is full of illustrations of this spirit of irreverent exaggeration. Not to refer to an earlier instance, we find that, towards the close of the Jewish economy, the entire religious life of the nation had for long been developed into an elaborate system of godless exaggerations. The entire system of Pharisaic religious-ness was nothing better than such a set of unwarranted and extravagant additions to the law. At the first, these exaggerations had their rise in a commendable desire to preserve the law of God, intact amid the corrupting foreign influences which were entering the nation from many quarters, especially after the return from Babylon. The earnest leaders among the Jews, dreading the influence of these innovations, sought to preserve the national religion by putting what they called "a hedge" around the law, to protect it from the threatened deluge of Gentile novelties. This hedge they fancied they had found in an exaggeration of the more prominent precepts. In order that the precept itself might be reverenced, they demanded that a certain range of territory round about it should be accounted holy. Alas! this was the readiest way to secure, not the devout observance of the precept, as they had de- signed, but the systematic neglect of it; for these unwarranted additions gradually increased until the original precept was buried beneath the overwhelming mass, and the divine kernel came to be forgotten because of the exclusive attention which was exacted by the worthless husk that had been wrapped around it to preserve it. The supererogatory tithing of the mint-bed gave no security that, a fortiori, the thought of robbing a widow should be abhorred. It sometimes only enabled the dishonest devotee to perpetrate his spoilations with an easier conscience; he fancied that his two-penny tithes of mint and anise were so very meritorious, that he could well afford to draw a little on the fund of merit by indulging occasionally in devouring the house of the widow or in robbing the patrimony of the orphan. They who began by exaggerating the precept for the sake of securing its authority, ended by making the commandments of God of none effect through these very exaggerations.

And we may not imagine that since we are not Jewish Pharisees, we are free from the same unhappy tendency. The tendency to exaggerate is universal. It is not merely a Jewish but a human infirmity; and the spirit of it may be freely indulged while one is quite unconscious of indulging it. What could be plainer than our Lord's reply to Peter, when the latter asked his Master about John? —-"Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me." And yet this very simple statement, heard by guileless men, could not be repeated correctly, as it seems; for when handed from disciple to disciple, it soon, like some rolling snow-ball, grew into a huge exaggeration. "Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die." Yet Jesus said not unto him, "He shall not die; but, if I will, that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (John xxi. 21-23.)

In the Apostolic Church we find the same spirit of exaggeration rife. Let the mention of a single case suffice. The Apostle James felt it needful to write an epistle which had for its principal object to expose a very perilous but very natural exaggeration of the gospel. Paul had taught—and the same Spirit which spoke in Paul, had been similarly speaking in the other apostles—that "to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness; even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works." In the sense in which the apostle used these blessed words, the statement is true up to its widest extent of meaning; but exaggeration, as usual, set to work on the inspired language, and another apostle had to lift up his voice in earnest warning, "Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" Faith without works saves: yes—but take heed not to misunderstand, for faith without works is dead.

In the age which followed the apostolic, we see the same evil spirit of exaggeration at work. Ignatius and some of the early fathers formed an overweening estimate of the meritoriousness and the blessedness of martyrdom; and this immoderate estimate continued to grow in the Church until multitudes of men and women committed virtual suicide under the mistaken thought that if they could only provoke magistrates to condemn them to death, they were thereby earning a title to the brightest crown of life.

About the same time, a similar exaggeration of the Christian duty of forsaking an evil world began to prevail. Overlooking altogether the meaning of our Lord's last intercessory prayer, "I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil." They allowed themselves to intensify those precepts which call upon the people of God to come out and to be separate from the unclean; till this exaggeration, which commenced in one of the most holy tendencies of a gracious spirit, ripened by degrees into all the moral horrors of medieval monkery.

Few feelings can be esteemed to be more natural more amiable than the veneration with which the early suffering Church cherished the memory of her martyrs. The loving remembrance of a departed pastor's example and counsels, appropriate and becoming in the case of those who had lost their leader by a natural death, was doubly becoming in the case of those whose pastors had "resisted unto blood." And yet this same loving remembrance, useful and fitting in its own place, was gradually exaggerated into the formal worship of departed saints, until, through this exaggeration, the superstitious Romanist has for long, come to have "lords many," and to recognize such a host of subordinate mediators, that he gets bewildered amid the crowd of them, and fails to find his way to the "One Mediator between God and man." Through a similar process, the simple and beautiful ordinance of the Lord's Supper became gradually developed into the "unbloody sacrifice of the Mass."

We need not add any more to these illustrations of the workings of this evil spirit in bygone ages. It will be more profitable to remember that exaggeration is as rife now as it ever was. It is at work everywhere; it is at work always; and it is daily producing its invariably bitter fruits. Whence, but from this come almost all those sectarian differences which are so fiercely contested, which break up so sadly the unity of God's Church, and which waste so recklessly the precious energies that are urgently needed for better purposes? One brother sees one truth to be very clearly revealed in the Word of God; while his neighbour has got as firm a grasp of quite a different truth. No harm whatever need arise from this difference, since each of the truths is alike true. If, then, in brotherly love and unity, A and B set themselves to help each other in their common explorations of the divine Word, the lack of each will be happily supplemented by the abundance of each. But, alas! lowly and loving behaviour like this has hitherto been the exception in the Church, not the rule. A is much more likely to exaggerate the truth which he holds; while B is just as likely to exaggerate his. Now, though divine truth is always self-consistent, and though no single article of faith, revealed in the Word of God, will ever be found to contradict any other article, yet the exaggerations of these will be sure to come into deadly conflict, and the spirit of sectarian contentiousness will thus arise. Hitherto the average A and the average B, have comported themselves after this bitter fashion; nay, the two individuals supposed, may be regarded in the light of representative men, whose unbrotherly janglings constitute so large a section of the Church's history. On reading the story of the past, or even on looking abroad over much of the present, one often feels as Arnold touchingly expresses it, "When I think of the Church, I could sit down, and pine, and die." And to what extent we are all the victims of this unholy spirit of exaggeration, none can tell save He who sitteth in the light and sees us as we really are.

A zealous temperament makes a man peculiarly liable to this vice of exaggeration; and if the real be associated with a narrow intellect, the tendency to exaggerate will reach its maximum. Possibly the whole mental activity of a man of this stamp may expend itself in the direction of pure exaggeration. Hence we not infrequently meet with narrow-minded, warm-hearted men who can scarcely be credited with the possession of a genuine truth; for in their hands truth is speedily transformed into error. No sooner do they become interested in any subject, than they begin to exaggerate it, sometimes to the extent of caricature; forgetful that any divine truth continues to be true, only while it is allowed to lie amid the setting of related truths in which God has imbedded it, while it retains the proportional size and shape which its Author has assigned it. But men of this temperament cannot appreciate, much less can they practice, this moderation of wisdom. Sure to be in extremes, they either totally neglect, or else they kill through positive kindness. One of the shrewdest observers of character now alive, says of enthusiasm, "Its very essence is a tendency to error and exaggeration."

 

Rabia, an early Mohammedan saint, lay sick. Two holy men of the same faith came to visit her, and were standing by her couch. "We should always so recognize the will of God in affliction," said one of the visitors modestly, "that we shall be able to endure the affliction with perfect patience." "Nay," returned his companion, anxious to strike a still higher note, "since it is the will of God that we should suffer, the sufferer ought to do far more than endure it patiently; he should positively rejoice in the very affliction." Here was a higher bid in that sort of sentimental auction, in which he who utters the most exaggerated sentimentalisms is entitled to have the victory and the applause knocked down to him; but Rabia, who was further advanced than either of her companions in this kind of saintlihood, quietly added, "Nay, since it is God who afflicts, the afflicted one should so recognize his presence as to be unconscious of the fact that he is under affliction at all." One sometimes meets with the working of a similar mysticism nearer home; but it is refreshing to turn from all these morbid exaggerations to the perfect Word of God, where the believing sufferer is comforted by the assurance that he still has enough to rejoice in, even although he may be presently in heaviness through manifold temptations; where he may hear even such a saint as Paul confess, "When I came to Troas to preach Christ's gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit because I found not Titus my brother;" nay, where he may read this word so full of wonderful comfort, "Jesus wept."

Indulgence in this spirit of exaggeration always injures a man's self. It seriously deranges the nicely adjusted harmony of truth as revealed in the Bible; and in this way, it interferes with the important process of the man's spiritual education. Nothing but the truth, the whole truth, the truth in its divinely adjusted pro- portions, can meet the spiritual needs of man. A truth exaggerated or mutilated, or even a truth misplaced, becomes so far an error; and error is always poisonous, while poison is always deadly, however unconsciously it may be swallowed. It is said that though water quenches thirst, and though ice in certain cases quenches it still more effectually, unmelted snow will not quench thirst at all; it will rather inflame it. Yet the chemical analysis of water, ice, and snow gives precisely the same results for each. How comes it then, that with so very slight an alteration in its form, the water which was able to quench thirst so delightfully, as water, can no longer quench it as snow, while the same elements, in the form of ice, can quench thirst perfectly? We cannot tell; but we learn from this what we learn abundantly elsewhere, that the action of a substance may be completely changed by the slightest change in the arrangement of its elements. Without at all suggesting that the spiritual influence of Bible truths can be quite so easily altered by slight changes in the mode of their exhibition, we believe that there is a certain analogy, in this respect, between the action of physical substances and of spiritual truth, and that the enthusiastic exaggerator of certain portions of the Word of God, indulges in his exaggerations to his own injury and the injury of others. In order to honour his own exaggeration of a favourite precept or a favourite doctrine, he has to neglect or to disown other doctrines which are equally divine. Having presumptuously made an idol out of one of the divine words, he cannot avoid the profanity of offering up the rest of the divine words in unholy sacrifice to his idol's honour. And no less serious is the injury which exaggeration does to our fellows. When a man is very deeply impressed with the importance of any given truth, and is desirous of making others feel interested in it, his very eagerness to persuade will—if he be of an ardent temperament—furnish a sore temptation to him to over- state. And yet these very overstatements will be apt to defeat their own object. If the truth advocated be itself an offensive one, the overstatement of it will make it still more offensive; and the intelligent rejecter of it, when rejecting the extravagances which he is sharp-sighted enough to detect, will be apt to feel himself justified while he turns away as well from the substantial truth which underlies the unwise exaggerations. Sometimes this spirit is indulged by amiable men, who are anxious to remove everything that they think to be perplexing or offensive from the gospel, as addressed to the sinner. It would be difficult indeed to overstate the greatness or the freeness of divine mercy, if only the connected truths were stated along with it; but these warm-hearted advocates harp exclusively and indiscriminatingly on an exaggerated gospel of simple love, and this in a way which tends to lower the hearer's estimate of the enormous heinousness of sin, and of the extreme danger and wickedness of standing aloof from the Saviour. The sole impression which is too often made by such advocacy is, that there is no one thing in the universe so easily to be secured as the forgiveness of sin, and this whenever it may suit the sinner's own convenience to accept it. Now, when this, or anything resembling this, is the principal impression produced—whether it be by the preaching of priestly absolution, or of an ultra-evangelical gospel—the sin-loving heart is sure to draw the practical inference that sin is a very light matter indeed, and that a man need not disturb himself too much either to avoid its commission, or to procure its immediate forgiveness. That God's estimate of sin is as different from this as possible, we see in the cross of his beloved Son.

Woe to him who thus exaggerates; and woe no less to him who, sitting at the feet of a foolish fellow-creature, puts his trust in these exaggerations. Truth alone can bless or sanctify; error in all its measures is spiritually hurtful. After the first victory of the American Confederates at Manassas, Jefferson Davis telegraphed the good news to the Confederate council. This was well; but, as a stroke of policy, he ventured to overstate the numbers of the enemy, and to understate greatly their own forces, designing thereby to increase the courage and the self-reliance of his compatriots. The exaggeration was believed; and, like all untruths, injured those who believed it. At first, indeed it immensely increased the popular enthusiasm; but along with this, it increased also to a perilous degree, the people's contempt of their enemies, and their self-conceited confidence in themselves. And so too, will all falsifications of the divine Record, by exaggeration or otherwise, be sure to recoil on the heads of the originator and his dupes; nor will it in the least degree save either, that the original exaggerator believed his own lie. Let us therefore be careful not to add to the words of God by such exaggerations, lest he reprove us for doing so, and we be found to be liars.

The natural tendency of an exaggeration in any given direction is to produce the opposite error. It requires a little time to work out its natural results; but as surely as the momentum of the swinging pendulum will carry it as far towards the right hand as it has been raised on the left, so surely will one man's too much will be followed by another man's too little. The law of action and reaction is not more uniform in the physical world than in the moral and spiritual. Sometimes indeed, the reaction will take place in the man's own experience; as Matthew Henry says, "Overdoing is the sure way to underdoing." One of the most intelligent and influential of all the enemies of the gospel, now in England, was once one of its most zealous propagators; and in narrating the phases of his faith, he does not scruple to ascribe his present position, in part at least to the recoil from an over-wrought enthusiasm, which was stimulated to the uttermost by the exaggerations of injudicious friends.

But whether the reaction takes place in the experience of the individual himself or not, it will be sure to take place in others. The superstition of one age issues in the infidelity of another; nay, the superstition of 0ne-half of a community tends to make the other half atheists. Over-severe discipline in a father often makes the son licentious; and the stinginess of a parent, as is frequently seen, naturally results in the wastefulness of his heir. On this principle, our exaggerated estimate of any of the words of God will provoke others to turn, not from the exaggeration merely, but from the Word itself, in disgust. In his "History of England," Lord Macaulay calls attention to the fact, that there were to be found in Scotland, in the seventeenth century, the most striking samples of two opposite and extreme types of human character. Punctilious conscientiousness could scarcely be carried further than it was by the Scottish Covenanters; unblushing dishonesty could scarcely show a more brazen effrontery than it did in the contemporary Scottish statesmen. The historian connects the two phenomena in this way: "Perhaps it is natural that the most callous and impudent vice should be found in the near neighbourhood of unreasonable and impracticable virtue. When enthusiasts are ready to destroy or to be destroyed for trifles magnified into importance by a squeamish conscience, it is not strange that the very name of conscience should become a by-word of contempt to cool the shrewd man of business. None of us will feel the least sympathy with the historian in estimating so unworthily the great points contended for by our venerated fathers; but while disowning his application of the principle in this instance, we acknowledge that the principle here stated is as important as it is undeniably true. When the iron is blunt, or, what comes to nearly the same thing, when the wood is very hard, the workman needs to put forth the more strength; but the extreme delicacy of such a work lies in adjusting the amount of the strength which ought to be put forth. It is in such a case as this that wisdom is profitable to direct. And under no circumstances can a man less easily afford to dispense with the "wisdom which is from above," than when he is setting before others the truth of God's Word—"rightly dividing the Word of truth."

How many questions are there, keenly discussed among us, in which truth is both honoured and injured by each set of combatants! Each of the two contending parties is right—chiefly, perhaps, in what it affirms; each of them is also wrong—its error being found chiefly in what it denies. But even the measure of truth which each party holds is more or less perverted by partisan exaggeration of it. The most satisfactory solution, then, of not a few of these questions, would be found in a point at which the two great principles contended for are seen to blend in harmony; and in maintaining which point it is necessary to reduce to sober truth all the exoneration which friendly enthusiasm has added to either side. It has been said that all high truth is composed of the union of two apparent contradictions; but, if so, how seldom does an eager spirit reverently weigh the case, and patiently combine the seeming contradictions, that thus he may attain the unmixed truth. The more ardent a man's temperament, the more apt will he be to snatch hastily at the one half-truth, or the other; and in proportion to the interest which he feels in the half-truth thus hastily adopted, will be his vehemence in assailing the half-truth which he rejects. Another class of minds, less eager but scarcely more thoughtful, will look at both truths, and will attempt to reconcile them by deducting the one from the other; and then they will contend vigorously for the tertium quid which remains. But it is only a minority among readers who, recognizing the absolute truthfulness of both statements, handle with trembling reverence the holy words in which they are expressed; and who, anxious to understand both statements while they do violence to neither, seek to attain some lofty height at which the seeming discords are heard to blend into a sublime and heavenly harmony. Yet this is the only satisfactory way of dealing with holy Scripture, every word of which "is pure." As an illustration of what is insisted on, we may glance at the two-fold teaching of holy Scripture in regard to the nature of Christ. In one place it is affirmed that Christ is God; in another place it is asserted with equal distinctness that Christ is man. Now, we can obtain possession of the full truth on this subject only by a patient reconciliation of the apparent contradictions. We may not deny his supreme divinity as Socinians do, who hastily snatch at the one half-truth; nor may we forget his manhood as some of the orthodox do, who snatch as hastily at the other half-truth; neither may we modify the one by the other, looking on him as a being who is not quite so high as God, nor quite so low as man; but we must think of the blessed Saviour as being both very God and very man—God as absolute as if he had never become human—man as real as if he had never been aught but man. In a similar way, ought we reverently to handle every truth revealed to us in holy Scripture, patiently comparing one inspired word with another, and learning to say, like our blessed Lord, "It is written again"

In reading the narratives of the apostle's labours, and in studying the epistles which they have left behind them, one is struck with the unexampled combination seen in these men, of two excellencies which are very rarely indeed to be found in union. They display all the warmth of hearts ablaze with zeal; while they equally manifest the most perfect sobriety of mind and temperance of judgment. With all his holy fervours, we shall search the life of Paul in vain for any instance of fanaticism, or even of enthusiastic exaggeration of the truth. He was no extreme High Churchman, nor was he an extreme Low Churchman—he was no extreme man on any side; else he would never have written, as he did in Phil, i. 18, that he rejoiced in the preaching of Christ, whatever might be the motives of the preacher, and however imperfect the testimony.

In this respect, the servants so far resembled their Master; the one faultless model, which every Christian is set to copy. The more carefully we study the inspired narratives of our Lord's life on earth, the more shall we be struck with his unequaled breadth and symmetry of character. There is in it no such thing as narrowness or exaggeration. He has every excellency, but he has it only in its due proportion, with nothing defective and nothing overdone. To many of his contemporaries, who witnessed his life beside that of the eminent religionists of the day, he must have seemed to be less religious—very much less indeed, than many of the Pharisees around him;—and so he was, for Pharisaic religion was a cluster of exaggerations, and from all these he was absolutely free. His life lacked everything like colour, simply because it had in it all the prismatic colours; but these were so perfectly proportioned as to form one blaze of pure white light. Science has taught us that white, instead of being the absence of all colour, arises from the blending of all the coloured rays in a perfectly adjusted proportion. If one or more of these colours be withdrawn, the light at once loses its whiteness, and bears a tint which is made up of the remaining rays. All good men in all ages have presented in their characters, varying shades of colour, for even good men have always some defect; and colour arises from the absence or deficiency of one or more of the coloured rays, or from what comes to the same thing, the excess of others. The blessed character of Christ alone presents us with the pure white of heaven—not because it lacks any particular hue, but because it has every hue in its perfectly harmonized proportion. It is exaggeration which gives to character its strongest colouring; and when a man cultivates these exaggerations, he is not only apt to value himself on account of them, but, as a consequence, to undervalue others who may happily be free from them. If his character blazes, we shall suppose, with the fierce red of zeal, he shall be tempted to look on red as the true colour of a healthy Christianity, and to regard with suspicion every hue except his own fiery scarlet. A careful study of the words and ways of the Lord Jesus might correct his mistake, for the character of Christ, when fully understood, shows not the faintest tinge of red; it shines only with the pure white light. Of course, there is red in Christ's perfect character, and by analysis we can discern it; nay, there is more red in it than there is in the character of the most zealous of disciples; but we cannot fix on the red as being his special characteristic, for it is supplemented by all the other prismatic hues, and through the perfect blending of the whole, the red is lost in the radiance of the pure and heavenly white. And so too is it with all the other strong points which make up human character. They are all to be found in Christ in perfect harmony, with nothing defective and nothing exaggerated. Let us learn our lesson. Like tiny mirrors, we can shine, not with inherent, but only with reflected light; but, like mirrors, let us see to reflect the entire light of Christ, in that harmonious blending of all the rays which produce, the heavenly white. Whatever may be the amount of the light reflected, let the quality be as perfect as possible.

For this, not only must the Christian be watchful in regard to the weak points of his character; for there indeed, temptation shall assail him, but he must equally guard his strongest points—his natural virtues and even his spiritual graces; for he may be taken on this side as readily as on the other. Is he by temperament meek and yielding? He must watch more carefully against the over-meekness which would yield too much, than against the haughty self-assertion, which is not his besetting sin. Moses, the meekest of men, seems to have erred through over-meekness, when, in deference to a violent-tempered wife, he dispensed with the circumcision of his child; insomuch that the Lord sought to kill him. No matter what our peculiar excellency may be, one of our chief dangers always lurks in that; although a good man often falls through some unguarded weak point, he is just as often overtaken through the exaggeration of his very strongest.

J. D.






Add Comment:



Articles