Brethren Archive

Little Things

by John Dickie


LIFE, in the case of most of us, is made up of a host of little things,—little duties, little services, little enjoyments; each, by itself, being very small indeed, but, all combined, forming an aggregate which is beyond conception grand. In nothing whatever is true superiority of character more strikingly manifested than in a man's treatment of life's little things. By one class of triflers, a few of the least of these little matters are attended to as if they alone were great; and when this is unhappily the case, the microscopic eye becomes gradually more and more microscopic, till it loses all power of perceiving anything that is bulkier than the smallest of trifles. By another class of idlers, the small is despised as if it were unworthy of any notice; and hence, life, which, in general, is so much occupied about little things, is frittered away in the vain expectation of great things yet to come. In marked contrast with both of these classes, the wise and earnest Christian will seek to estimate rightly all the circumstances of his lot. He will neither so idolize the minute as to overlook the great; for in the light of God's presence, he shall see the small and the great according to their actual relative importance; neither will he permit himself to despise the day of small things, for the greatness of the great God who has entrusted him with these little services makes the smallest task most weighty.

Nature, in all its departments, is showing us constantly the vast power of little things. How often do we see the dry fields in spring thirsting for the refreshing showers; and when, in due time, the river of God, which rises amid the waters that lie above the firmament, is turned upon the parched ground, it is greatly enriched, and the little hills instantly rejoice on every side. Plants, animals, and the atmosphere itself respond at once to the reviving visitation. What mighty power is this, which is able to cover the face of universal nature so speedily with such a gladsome smile? Mighty power!—it is nothing but a multitude of tiny drops, any one of which, by itself, could have effected nothing, but the aggregate of which has accomplished all that we see. What could be slighter than a single rain-drop? and yet, what is more powerful than a shower in spring?

And this is merely a sample of God's way throughout Nature. Look, for another instance, at the mighty ocean, and at the strange walls with which its restless stragglings are in many places restrained. The divine hand, when it separated the dry land from the sea, girdled in the aggressive ocean with a prison-wall of the tiniest sand-grains. The most sensitive nerve in the human finger could not detect any weight in one of these little blocks with which God has built np a most effective rampart to confine the restless heaving of the dangerous sea. "Fear ye not me? saith the Lord will ye not tremble at my presence, which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it; and though the waves thereof toss themselves, yet can they not prevail; though they roar, yet can they not pass over it?" (Jer. v. 22).

Science, too, teaches us the importance of commonly neglected trifles. Science, indeed, recognizes no such thing as a trifle. Every fact, no matter how apparently insignificant, she accounts worthy of her most careful attention; and it is owing to her admirably patient study of the most trifling things that modem science has been able to win her astonishing victories. Modern commerce, too, is equally characterized by her attention to the formerly neglected trifles. How many prosperous business men are thriving on their business maxim of "small profits and quick returns." They find that it pays them better to have a penny profit on each transaction of a million, than to seek a pound of profit on each transaction of a thousand.

Providence is everywhere teaching us the grave importance of what are accounted little matters. The more familiar that any man becomes with history and biography, the less disposed shall he be to affirm of any circumstance whatever that, it is an insignificant trifle. He has learned but little, if he has not discovered that there is no event which may not unexpectedly become the pivot around which the gravest circumstances of a life or of an age may revolve. Could anything be more insignificant than the preference of a shaven to an unshaven chin? And yet, this same paltry matter turned out to be the most serious of all the incidents in the life of Louis VII. of France, for it led to the disgust and separation of his queen; and this again issued finally in the English claim to the kingdom of France, and to the centuries of international war—centuries which drenched the fields of France with the best blood of both countries.

We shall have missed one of the lessons to be learned from the late Franco-Prussian War, if we have not been reminded of the importance of attending to little things. No trifle was accounted by the Germans to be too minute for their careful consideration; and for this they have had their reward. The trifles were too often left by the French to take care for themselves; and of this neglect they have had to bear the consequences. The man who wisely attends to small matters as well as to great, may count on success as far as it is permitted to man to count on; but the man who arranges only for the great things, while he neglects the little, shall assuredly fall through his neglect of these little things.

And, what is of more consequence to us than all that we can glean from our observation of nature or of providence? The Word of God gives no countenance to the vanity which affects to despise small things. The kingdom of God—the grandest manifestation of divine power and wisdom in the world—is likened in its beginnings to a grain of mustard-seed, which is the least of all seeds; and this, whether we look at it as it is manifested in the individual or in the world. The instruments who were selected to establish it, were not the worldly wise, the mighty, or the noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, the things which are not, to bring to nought things which are. Nay, what was the foundation on which the magnificent superstructure was made to rest, but the very stone which all the builders had agreed to reject as too slight to be built into the work at all?—a stone disallowed universally of men, but chosen of God, and precious!

In the Christian's cultivation of personal character, much mischief is wrought through the unwise neglect of little things. In regard, for instance, to the economical expenditure of our time, we often waste the moments; and then we have to regret that the years have not been wisely spent. We forget that wasted moments involve the waste of years. As the summer is but the aggregate of so many sunbeams, so a fruitful life is but the sum-total of so many devoted moments; and if the moment by itself be as insignificant as a solitary sun-beam, the persevering dedication of all the moments will make the life as glorious as any summer with its flowers and ripening fruits. We have not, then, an entire lifetime to lay in one gift on God's altar; nay, we have not an hour—we have only a single moment, and after that another moment; and if each passing moment be spent with God, the aggregate life shall be that of an Enoch, with its end as truly blessed. We might have quoted here the familiar proverb, "Take care of the pence, the pounds will take care of themselves;" but, in truth, the proverb does not really apply to the case. In regard to time and life we have no such things as pounds, we have only pence; and if a man does not set himself to save the penny, he shall never have opportunity to save anything greater. None of us has a month, none of us has an hour, none of us has more than the passing moment to redeem for God.

The same principle holds good in regard to every department of Christian faithfulness. This grandest of characters is best cultivated by a conscientious attention to minute duties; and it is amid these little matters that its higher degrees are most strikingly displayed. Faithfulness in this life is always shown by faithfulness in "a very little;" and equally so, is unfaithfulness. The very insignificance of the matter, in itself, gives opportunity for manifesting our most reverent recognition of the awful authority of him who has been pleased to appoint it. Any duty is a duty, simply because God makes it so; and we can more readily display the spirit of true obedience, by our devoted attention to those things which have nothing to commend them to our reverence but that he has appointed them.

It has been found that a great proportion of the deposits in savings-banks, is made by persons in receipt of small incomes. In such cases, the weekly saving is, by itself, an insignificant trifle. Still the prudent owners do not despise their trifles; and because they do not, the united trifles make many an old age comfortable and independent. In a similar way, Christian usefulness is found to depend much less on unusual opportunities or abilities, than on a sedulous improvement of the little that a man has, however commonplace it be. We can suppose a case—happily no uncommon one—in which a humble man humbly estimates his own very moderate capabilities, and accepts his little tasks as admirably adapted to the strength and skill of a feeble worker like himself. As he works, his original capacities expand by exercise, and God rewards his faithfulness in little things by gradually trusting him with more; until, at last, when death calls him from a sphere of useful service, which he had both created and adorned, he is bewailed on earth by bereaved fellow-men, and welcomed to the everlasting mansions with the "Well done, good and faithful servant!" And we can suppose another case—unhappily no uncommon one—in which a man, much more highly gifted than the first, has formed a less modest estimate of his own abilities, has despised the apparent trifles entrusted to him, and, as years went past, has still more haughtily despised the trifles, waiting for some grand opportunity of doing greater things, till death too calls him away unwept, from a place which he merely cumbered, his chief service consisting in the illustration which he furnishes that, while devoted faithfulness may make the last in gift, the first in service, the proud contempt of little things may make the first in gift, the last in fruitfulness.

If, then, we be faithful in the little, we shall certainly be en- trusted with more; but to be entrusted with more than we now have, without the faithfulness—and it is this for which the idler is always waiting—would simply be, as old Gurnall states it, to get a greater capital in hand with which to drive a brisker trade for hell.

We may allow ourselves to overlook the trifles, but Satan does not. He knows their value, and he so uses them that our most imminent dangers often lie in the insignificant circumstances of our lot. Temptation, when resisted, involves more or less conflict; and the peculiar danger of a temptation sometimes lurks in the fact that its subject-matter seems too slight, in the eyes of the careless man, to warrant his making much ado about it. Slight!—perhaps so; but the doing of the slightest act may indicate the obedience or the disobedience of the agent; and either of these is no trifle. It is the very thinness of the face which makes it possible to insert the wedge into very narrow chinks; but when it is once inserted, no one knows what it may accomplish after it is driven home. The slightest impropriety may prepare the way for another which shall be a degree more grave, and that again for its successor; until, at last, a Judas, who began with merely filching a trifling coin out of a bag, may end by selling his Redeemer's life for gold. We have all read the Eastern story of the imprisoned sage who directed a beetle to be set on the wall of his tower, with the slenderest of threads attached to its little body, which it dragged upwards till it reached the prisoner's hand. By means of the thread thus procured, the prisoner drew up a cord, and by the cord a rope, and by the rope a ladder; till the trifling apparatus which an insect could carry on its back was made to accomplish the deliverance of the sage. As John Newton puts it, no man could kindle a green log at once by means of a candle; but if he lay a few dry chips between the candle and the log, he may burn the green log to ashes. And the little matters which are so apt to be overlooked are like the dry chips which our enemy often uses to accomplish the ruin of souls. Ah, it is not the part of wisdom to despise the trifles! God makes much of them; Satan makes much of them; and he who will only use his own eyes on what is transpiring round about him will soon learn, what Bishop Butler seems to have learned, that "the greatest evils in life have had their rise from somewhat, which was thought of too little importance to be attended to."

Yes, the small may be as truly said to involve the great, as the great may be said to include the small; and this principle, which we have been seeking to apply in a practical way to the cultivation of Christian character, may be equally applied to the Church as composed of individual members. To the Church has been entrusted a peculiar work—how important it is we may learn by the light of the dying Redeemer's cross; and for the doing of this work she has been endowed with special gifts. Now, what is the Church but the aggregate of her many members? The responsibilities of the body rests on each member according to his place and station; the character of the body will be that, and nothing else than that, which results from the character of the units that compose it. There is no single member of the Church who is so absolutely insignificant that in spirit does not affect the character of the Church, and his lowly life-work does not influence the sum-total of her labours, in the age in which he lives. His influence may be happy, or it may be unhappy; but to some extent, it tells. Though, then, each unit, viewed apart, may be as impotent for good as a single rain-drop in summer, yet, if each Christian were to set his heart on accomplishing all that he can, and if he were perseveringly to operate in a certain definite direction, in harmony with his fellows, however insignificant the influence of the unit might be, what a magnificent result would follow from the efforts of the whole!

The humble man, of course, invariably forms a very modest estimate of his own place and power; and the more graciously humble he is, the more modest will his self-estimate ever be. But out of this excellent spirit, a dangerous temptation may arise. A man may fancy himself to be so insignificant, and his efforts to be so very worthless, that he and his influence are the smallest of trifles, and it shall matter little whether he attempt to do his appointed work or not. Take heed, my reader, of this mock humility. Your tempter may look like the brightest of the angels of light, but his real name is Unbelief, not Humility. What you feel in regard to yourself, every Christian may equally feel in regard to his work; and if every Christian were to neglect his duties because he feels himself incompetent to discharge them, how shall Jacob ever be made to arise! No, no; cherish those modest thoughts of yourself, for they are all true; but dismiss your unworthy thoughts of Christ, for these are false. His power is such that even with you, he can accomplish anything. There is no duty to which you are really called that you are not quite able to discharge, with Christ strengthening you. Whatever you may be, God is "able to make all grace abound towards you, that ye, always having all-sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work." Your sense of impotence is rightly used when it sends you, in humble faith, to Christ for help; but you abuse it, if you are led by it to bury your talents in the earth, and thereby to earn the slothful servant's doom. Throughout the whole economy of grace—in the service of the Christian as well as in the frank forgiveness of the sinner—grace is reigning; and God delights to employ the self-emptied little ones for the doing of his greatest works.

Indeed, there is a peculiar advantage, as well as a peculiar disadvantage, connected with mediocrity, or even with unusual paucity of gift. The feebly gifted may, perhaps more readily than others, be the most faithful; and it is faithfulness, not amount of gift, that receives the reward. It is generally the widows, with nothing more than their bare two mites, who fling the unbroken sum into the treasury of God. The rich man more rarely goes this length; it is so easy for him to be satisfied with casting into the treasury something handsome out of his abundance. The widow's gift has found thousands of imitators since the gospel story recorded it; but almost all the donors have been quite as poor as she. And the same principle applies to Christian service of every kind. Art thou but feebly gifted then? Be not discouraged because of this. The highest honours of the kingdom are not thereby placed, by a single hair-breadth further, beyond your reach. Seek to make up your lack of gift with extraordinary devotedness of love; and there is nothing whatever to hinder that in your case, as in the case of the widow, and of myriads besides, the law of the kingdom should receive another illustration; "Many that are first shall be last, and the last shall be first."

But while those who are feebly gifted may warrantably accept the encouragement which lies in this, they should take along with it a warning which is specially directed to themselves. If they may most readily excel in faithfulness, when they decide to be faithful, they may, in the absence of this decision, be most readily tempted to extreme unfaithfulness. It was not the man, in the parable, who had five talents, nor the man who had two, but the man who had only one talent, who went and hid it. My feebly gifted brother, the two extremes lie before us; and we can best escape our peculiar danger by girding our loins to enter the lists and contend for our peculiar prize. Are our endowments feeble, and have we been entrusted with but one talent, or perhaps with only the fraction of one?—there is all the more need, that we do not divide our poor little sum, but cast it undiminished into the treasury of God.

And though, with such devoted faithfulness, our gift may be manifestly feeble, our faithful employment of it can never be in vain. The gracious God shall accomplish by us that which he pleases. It is by the multitude of humble devoted souls that his work is carried on from age to age; souls which combine the twin-graces of dependence and decision. In past geologic ages, great monsters of living things have moved upon this earth, or have swam amid its waters; and not a few of them have left their tremendous relics, to show us a specimen of the creatures which once existed on our globe. But in the same ages there lived, and wrought, and died, myriads of minute creatures, so small as to be scarcely visible; and yet the presence of these tiny creatures has, beyond all comparison, told more powerfully on this globe than all the huge monsters which have lived upon it. And so is it, in an important sense, with Christian life and labour. It is not its few great men who give character to an age; it is the myriad multitude of the unknown little ones. Indeed, the great men of any age are extensively powerful chiefly through the influence which they exert on the many small. Since, then, we cannot each be like a megalosaurus, to excite admiration among our contemporaries, and to astonish those who come after us with their gigantic remains, let us each be content to be the diatom which God has made us; and let us seek to serve his will with perfect faithfulness in our little spheres, operating chiefly through our prayers and the influence of a uniformly holy life; and it shall be again seen that the races of tiny creatures have a grander work to do on earth than the races of monsters.

The historian Motley, speaking of national progress, says that "empires are built up or undermined by the ceaseless industry of obscure multitudes, often slightly observed or but dimly comprehended." We venture to extend this principle to the Church of Christ. Her special character in any age depends upon the character of her myriads of unnoticed little ones; and if these little ones should allow themselves to neglect their service or should fall from the faith, the work of the Church would be left undone; the spirit of the Church would become apostate. Let none of us, then, presume to undervalue the unnoticed and the unknown; and we are really despising the whole class if we neglect the little services which God has been pleased to appoint ourselves, because we think them trifling. Let us accept these duties out of Christ's own hand, since they are his appointment for us; and let us attend to them as thereby rendering obedience to the Lord who bought us, and they shall cease to look little in our eyes. His glory shall cover them with glory. From Christ and to Christ, will make the meanest act of service noble, though it were but the giving of a cup of cold water to a thirsty brother; from self and for self, would make the most brilliant service mean. And a service of our own selecting would always aim at our own glory, rather than our Lord's. For aught we know, the very brightest crown in heaven shall be accorded to some lowly servant who was most faithful in little things.

Someone has said that power is best shown by the easy handling of great things, but that love is best shown by careful attention to the small. God's power and God's love are thus manifested towards ourselves. "He rideth upon the heaven in our help"—such is his power; he numbereth the hairs of our head—such is his love. It is not the proofs of our power that God is asking at our hands, but the fruits of our love. How, then, could our love be better shown than by a constant and most careful attention to his will in little things? And the more trifling these little things seem to be, the better may love be shown in the painstaking devotedness which sets itself to please him perfectly.

A discipline of this kind, which tests us, and which educates us by means of little things, is the discipline that best befits our present condition. We are here on earth to be tested, and character is best discerned by means of little matters; just as the extreme delicacy of the balance is shown by means of the smallest weights. We are here also to be trained; and this education is best accomplished by means of apparent trifles. Our mental and moral range is so very narrow, that to elevate or depress us to any great extent would only be to take us beyond our compass altogether. We cannot bear joys that are very great, any more than we can endure sorrows that are too heavy. Our capacity for either is limited; and whatever is laid on us beyond this capacity slides off, and becomes to us as if it were not. And it is well that we can thus get rid of it; for if we could retain it, the too violent emotion would exhaust us, and its equally (violent reaction would continue to exhaust us. While, therefore, a series of great sorrows would crush us, if we did not escape by becoming callous, a series of great joys would also crush us, and this no less completely. From all this, and from several other evils which would attend a discipline limited to the most weighty matters, we are delivered by our present admirable discipline of trifles. By means of these, when properly met, we can be as profitably exercised as we could have been by the most stupendous matters; while yet we are not in danger of being overwhelmed by them. "There is nothing, sir," said Dr. Johnson to Boswell, "too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

Let no man, then, affect to despise the trifling duties of daily life. Wherein does Christian courtesy consist, but in a considerate attention to ten thousand little things! One man goes through life, casting gleams of sunshine on all who come within his reach; another man, equally moral, and, so far as great principles are concerned, equally good, goes along his life-path, irritating all who come near him, wounding the delicate sensibilities of many, an annoyance to most, a help and a comfort to very few. What is the real difference between the two men? At bottom, the difference may seem to be very small indeed, for it lies mainly in the different estimates which the two have formed of little things. The two pots of precious ointment would give forth an equally sweet savour, were it not that the perfume of the one is overpowered by the putrefying carcasses of a few very small flies; but the tiny atoms are quite enough to "cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour." It is the part, then, of the Christian, not only to make his life a perfume, but to see that the pleasant savour is not corrupted by any "dead flies."

"A trifle makes a dream—a trifle breaks," says Tennyson; and our present life has much of the dream-like in it. It is like a dream in this respect, at least, that any one among a myriad of daily trifles may turn the life into another course, as readily as the slightest trifle may give a new shape to the dream of a dozing sleeper. Nay more, if our lives be happy, they shall owe their happiness to the right employment of millions of trifles; if wretched, they shall have been made so by our misuse or neglect of trifles. A holy, happy, successful life, is a life which has been faithful to God in little matters; a wasted life has been wasted only because the trifles were overlooked.

Superior wisdom of a certain kind is not enough. Many a magnificent scheme of benevolence or of social reform has been set afloat with much care and kindly wisdom, and ere the noble-looking barque was well launched, it came to shipwreck. The concocter of the scheme, amiable, thoughtful, and enthusiastic, was perhaps a man of the study rather than the market-place; and he therefore took cognizance only of great principle in the formation of his plans, despising the trifles as too slight for notice. But the smallest leak may suffice to sink a noble ship; and the despised trifles are sure to take ample vengeance in the long-run. And when they do so, they will be too strong for the wise man and his wisest theories; and, unless he deign to consult them, they will doom his devices to a speedy collapse.

The reader will scarcely mistake us, as if we were advocating a systematic attention to little matters. while great interests are to be neglected. This would be a foolish course indeed; and yet it is commonly enough pursued. The ancient Pharisees acted in this spirit. They scrupulously paid their tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin, while they omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. The Lord Jesus does not censure them, however, for their attention to the minute, but for their neglect of the great; for he says, "These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone." All that we insist on is, that little matters be not neglected because they seem little. The spirit of genuine obedience will always lead a man to say, "I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right" (Ps. cxix. 128).

There is one department, however, into which the Christian ought never to permit secondary matters to find an entrance. Here he is to shut his eyes on everything but the very greatest. This unique spot is the region of motives. To multiply motives means really to debase their character; to strengthen here is in fact to weaken. The Christian must seek to live under the perpetual constraint of one grand dominating motive, his consecration to his heavenly Father's will, as a man who is accepted in the Beloved, and who has been anointed for continual service by the Holy Ghost. In the will of God and in the love of Christ is he to find his one con- straining motive; and he shall be strong in the Lord as he persistently ignores all additions to this one idea. His eye is to be kept single, and his heart united. For the performance of any given duty, there may easily be found several subordinate reasons which the Christian may be tempted to add to his one great motive, in order to strengthen it, if he finds himself insufficiently under its control; but let him take heed how he does so. In adding his subordinate reasons to his one grand reason, he may find that he has not so much added as superseded; and, like the Galatians, he who began in the Spirit, may soon fall so low as to seek the completion of his work by the flesh. No, it is much safer for us to confess our weakness, and to cry to the Strong for strength. While then we dare not overlook the small in the matter of our service, we dare not regard it in the motives for our service. We must act in the spirit of Levi, "Who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children" (Deut. xxxiii. 9).

If any reader feels tempted to overlook the lowly little service which alone may seem for the present to be possible to him, under the thought that he is flung away upon a sphere so very humble, let him ponder the rebuke of an aged minister of last century, given to a younger brother who had spoken slightingly of his own small country congregation, "Ah, my brother, you will find your congregation to have been quite large enough when you stand to give account before the solemn judgment-seat."

And if anyone be disheartened at finding that his routine of duties affords no opportunity for any but the most humble and commonplace service, let him be encouraged by the words of the blessed Saviour, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." And let us all cultivate the spirit to which Dr. Chalmers gives expression in his diary, when he prays, "Lord, teach me the art of extracting piety from every thing around me."

J. D.






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