The Great Thief
by John Dickie
PROCRASTINATION is the thief of time. Procrastination is the murderer of souls. Each of us is as familiar with the aphorism as he is with his own name; but who among us is sufficiently impressed with the extent of the daily theft, or the magnitude of the scale on which the murders are being constantly perpetrated? Many thousands, and these by no means, morbidly sensitive, are feeling their hearts at this moment, wrung by a sense of the unspeakable horrors of war; and there are multitudes who are bewailing the still more frightful ravages of strong drink; but bloody war and frenzied drunkenness, with some half-dozen of evil spirits as bad as they are, cannot combined, accomplish half so much of evil as is effected single-handed by the smooth-faced, soft-lipped, simpering demon of delay. Oh, that convenient season, of which everyone assures himself, which is always coming, but which never comes!—it is by much, the most successful of all the wiles of Satan. How many myriads stumble into that fatal pitfall; and of these myriads, how few the units who contrive to clamber out of it, and who there-after crawl along the heavenly way, on which they might have run like athletes, if procrastination had not maimed them.
The evil effects of procrastination are twofold. Like the miasma of some unhealthy district which kills the weakly, while they also enfeeble the strong, so this spirit of delay operates both on sinner and on saint; and, while it keeps the one in spiritual death, it keeps the other at the lowest point of spiritual life.
How common is procrastination! It is all but universal. To draw up a register of this class of sinners would be to repeat—or nearly so—the census of the population. Which of us, looking back on past life, does not recall with sorrow the memory of weeks, and months, and years filched from us by the frauds of this great thief of time? Nay, how few of us, looking back over the past day, or the past hour, can feel that we have now got beyond the reach of our old deceiver, and that we are now at last fulfilling to our own satisfaction the magnificent aspiration of Brainerd—to live upon the stretch for God.
And yet, when one thinks of it, how very foolish is procrastination! What can to-morrow, or next week, or next year, do for me that to-day has not already done? The present hour has descended to me out of heaven, bearing the golden gift of opportunity, and has placed the jewel on my open palm; and no future, near or distant, can ever bring me a grander gift. What shall I do with it? Shall I close my fingers on the cherished treasure, and guard it as a something more precious than life; or shall I leave it carelessly exposed till thievish procrastination sweep it away, as he has already swept away ten thousand similar treasures, which are now, alas! for ever irrecoverable? And when, in the light of God's Word and of a near eternity, one thinks of the fact that nothing whatever can be gained, while so much—oh, how much!—must be risked, and may be lost, one stands aghast at the positive insanity of this delaying spirit.
And, besides all this, in attempting to form a proper estimate of procrastination, we must not forget its heinous sinfulness. God says, Now, and sinful man dares to suggest To-morrow; but when to-morrow comes, and God condescends to revisit the sinner and to say, Now, the procrastinating sinner, more hardened than ever, dares to repeat with greater firmness his insincere "To-morrow;" and thus the irreverent controversy is continued from day to day, and from year to year—the forbearance on the one side being even more wonderful than the impudence on the other. What a mournful revelation of the spiritual character of man—of ourselves—does this spirit of universal procrastination afford; and where is it all to end?
Let us look briefly at procrastination as it bears upon the case of the sinner, and procrastination as it affects the saint.
First, as it affects the sinner. In the history of the long war for independence fought by the Netherlands against Spain, we read that Prince Maurice commanded sixty Spanish prisoners to draw sixty lots out of an urn. On twelve of these lots was inscribed the fatal word "gibbet," indicating that the twelve men who drew them were to be hanged by way of reprisals. The first soldier who put his hand into the urn drew a blank; but, instead of thankfully rejoicing at his deliverance, he sold his lot for a trifle to one of his more prudent comrades, and plunged his hand into the urn to run a second risk of the gallows. Recklessness like this, is difficult for a sober mind to comprehend. And yet the hourly conduct of the unforgiven procrastinator is scarcely a whit less reckless. With infinite interests in the utmost peril, he has recklessly ventured along the dangerous path of life for one hour. During every moment of that hour he has been at enmity with God, under his righteous displeasure—in fact, "condemned already" (John iii. 18)—and the swift stroke of judgment which has been hanging over his head, and which is certain to descend soon if he continues impenitent, might have descended at any given moment. He has had no protecting covert—none. He has had no promise of any mercy—none. He had no warrant to count on exemption for a single moment. And yet, having happily escaped for this hour, to what use does he turn this wonderful escape? Does he employ the opportunity to get rid, as speedily as possible, of his frightful danger? Not he. With increasing heedlessness he plunges into the next hour on a similar venture, and in the same unsheltered condition. Unlike the soldier, his ruin would not even save a comrade. Holy beings may be less able to understand the recklessness of such a life—a life, alas! so very common in a world like ours—than prudent men are to sympathize with the strange feelings of the Spanish soldier.
The young procrastinate; and, if they ever think upon the subject at all, they think that they at least, have some warrant for delay. It is still morning with them, the air is fresh and cool, the dew is on the grass, and the long, long summer day of life is just beginning. In their case, therefore, there shall be ample time left them to care for another world, after one has gathered a little of the sweetness out of this. Alas! they shut their eyes on the possibility—the probability—of an early death, and on the certainty that their present reluctance to decide shall grow more reluctant by every hour's indulgence of the procrastinating spirit.
"Youth is not rich in time, it may be poor;
Part with it as with money, sparing;
Pay no moment but in purchase of its worth;
And what is its worth?—ask the death-beds, they can tell."
The middle-aged procrastinate; and they do it with still more ready heartiness than the young, because the habit of delay has, in their case, become greatly stronger. As youth has its pretended warrant for delay, in its anticipated superfluity of time, middle-age has its excuse as well, and this it finds in an opposite direction—in its utter want of time. The young man who is now saying, "Not yet, for I shall always have time enough," shall change his note in a few years, and shall then say, "Not now, for I have no leisure left to me; go thy way, therefore, for this time, and when I have a more convenient season, I will call for thee." What! no time to listen to God, no leisure to care for eternity? And what in comparable duty is it which thus engrosses the priceless time? Is it the struggle for bare existence, the labour to secure bread for one's famishing children? Ah no! even this would be no sufficient excuse for the procrastinating sinner's delay; but he never has any reason for his neglect so good as this. The procrastinator is occupied, not in earning bread—that in its own place and measure would be right— but in gathering riches, or in spending them on pleasure; not in getting the means to pay his debts, but the means to gratify his lusts. In the parable of the Great Supper, the parties who besought exemption from attendance did not plead that they had to go and purchase land, or that they had to secure the oxen which were needed to plough it; they only wished to go and examine the purchases which were already made, and which could as easily be examined on any other day. In other words, the plea was a mere excuse. And so is it still with the procrastinator's plea. It is not to the urgent duties and the most pressing claims of this life that he persists in sacrificing the will of God and his own eternal blessing; it is to life's most paltry and most unworthy aims.
The aged procrastinate; and they sometimes do it with a resoluteness which, if it were rightly directed, would almost enable them to get rid of procrastination. In their case, however, the evil habit has become all-controlling. No sight is more melancholy, though, alas! few sights are more common, than that of an old man, who has so much leisure time that he can scarcely contrive to dispose of it, but whose levity or worldliness seems to render him incapable of realizing his position, as a sinful man within a few days of the judgment-seat, and of the everlasting doom.
The dying procrastinate; and when one thinks of it, what else could be expected? In general, a man dies as much as he has lived. In the history of the Anglo-French War in America, we read of a General Braddock who was severely wounded, and who, dissatisfied with his own manoeuvering, said, "Next time we shall do better." And with these words on his lips he breathed his last. How many, even of the dying, similarly deceive themselves with an expected future which shall never come; and this, in a business which is of infinitely greater moment! "When we recover from this illness," they say, "we shall now at length repent and reform;" and, ere the words are well uttered, they turn to the wall and die. Oh, that the young would lay to heart the solemn warning. If they permit themselves to waste their present spring-time, summer shall be un- able to make up the loss—it shall only lack its usual wealth of slowly-ripening fruits; autumn shall be still less able to repair the neglected opportunity of spring, it shall only mourn with its fruitless branches and its barren fields, the carelessness which wasted the early year. And then, at last, shall surely come the dreadful winter, with its everlasting storm, and its intolerable famine, to punish the sin aud folly of the reckless procrastinator. To secure immunity from this—
"Who would not give a trifle to prevent,
What he would give a thousand worlds to cure?"
We have just referred to the sin of procrastination, and this suggests to us the most solemn consideration connected with the whole matter. Why comes it, that man so generally and so persistently puts off his acceptance of the divine mercy through Christ? The answer is an alarming one, but we must honestly face it. It is simply because the natural heart is at enmity against God; and man delays his return to God because he cannot make up his mind to return at all. He loves sin, that is, he loves self-will and the selfish enjoyment of this world; so he cannot think of forsaking all this, when it tastes so very sweet to him. On the other hand, he dreads the wrath of God; so he cannot but purpose to do, at some time or other, whatever he thinks may be needed to escape that dreaded wrath. He feels as Augustine felt, when, under the double influence of pungent conviction and the love of sin; he wished to be converted, but not yet. The world is dearly loved, but Christ is hated, while the wrath of God is feared; and out of these three elements is combined the peculiar feeling of the procrastinator. So long as the alternative presented to his choice has been Christ, or the sinful enjoyment of the world, he has never failed to choose the beloved world; and it shall only be at the last, when the alternatives offered, shall seem to have become changed to Christ or HELL, that he shall be able to persuade himself to the reluctant acceptance of Christ at all. Oh, what an insult does this very consent offer to the Christ of God! If, indeed, it were possible to separate the enjoyment of the world from its threatened after-consequences, the procrastinator would feel at considerable ease; he would say, "Let Christ go forever, let heaven be given to those who wish it—for me, I want my fill of earth and life, with perpetual youth and health to enjoy it, and I ask for no better heaven." But he knows that his life of worldliness must very soon be ended; and he shrinks from the dreadful consequences which he is afraid must follow. Unwilling, therefore, to give up the world now, unwilling also to say his final nay to the Saviour's offered mercy, he covers his refusal under gentle words, which, even to himself, and at the very most, seem only to suggest delay. Alas! he but deceives himself. God's eye of fire sees beneath the thin covering; and He knows that the softly whispered "I pray thee, have me excused" means nothing short of blank refusal. Well shall it be for the procrastinator if his refusal be not accepted at once, as final.
"By the street of By-and-by," says a Spanish proverb, "one arrives at the house of Never;" and in this way the procrastinating man generally lives and dies, without accomplishing the purpose which he flattered himself with thinking that he really meant. From the very first, the great adversary had this end in view. The delay which he craftily suggests to the tempted youth, he never means for mere delay, but for final rejection; and let the young man be assured that if the suggestion be accepted in its plausible form of present delay, the wily adversary shall in all probability obtain all that he wishes.
According to our original purpose, let us now glance very briefly at procrastination as it affects the saint. In the case of the Christian believer, it is no less foolish and no less sinful. It would be very happy indeed, if we could think that procrastination was much less indulged in the Church than it is in the world. Here, too, its results are truly deplorable. How many a man is living on, from year to year, in feebleness and languor, scarcely more than barely living, and without the comfortable assurance that he is even so much as this. As for sweet, and close, and sanctifying fellowship with his Saviour, he has none; for, though the tender-hearted Shepherd will not overdrive his lambs, he will not loiter on his way to keep company with the sluggard. As for service in the gospel— service by which God may be glorified, souls may be benefited, and himself beyond all others blessed—as for such service, it is beyond his reach. In regard to witness-bearing, he, of course, testifies for Christ, as every professing Christian really does; but nine-tenths of the testimony of his life is utterly false, and sets the Saviour before the world in a light which is as untrue as it is unfavourable. His conscience, of course, periodically troubles him; for it is only the love which is perfect, that can avail to cast out every measure of slavish fear—and the procrastinator's love is anything but perfect. Under these self-upbraidings, therefore, he sometimes thinks of reform; but there are so many lions around the sluggard's door, that he fears to leave his retreat; so, when the brief spasm of excitement is over, he resumes his old supine position, and
"The thing he can't but purpose, he postpones."
How common, how nearly universal is procrastination among Christians! It is not meant to insinuate that the evil spirit prevails universally to the extent just hinted, but only that most Christians have their spiritual vigour greatly lowered by its insidious influence. Looking back over life, what a melancholy retrospect does it afford to many of us—of purposes formed and then abandoned, or so feebly carried out that the success has amounted only to a mere percentage of what might have been accomplished. And yet, with duty so pressing as to amount to an actual necessity laid upon us—with the Holy Spirit waiting to enable us to work out what he had already been working in us to desire and almost to will, why should we have come short of doing what was, in regard to us, the good pleasure of God? Oh, if there can be grief in heaven, it may well be felt at the retrospect of such opportunities so wasted through unholy procrastination.
Time, of itself, is an element of power, as every earnest spirit knows; and to throw that, as the procrastinating Christian does, into the hands of his enemy, that it may be used against himself, against his work, against his Master's cause, is as foolish as it is sinful. "With time and myself, there are two of us," Philip II. of Spain was wont to say, and the saying is applicable to the case in hand. If the Christian seize upon the present, and occupy the present, time and he are two; but if he leave the present time to be occupied by his enemy, as the procrastinator always does, then he has two devils to contend with instead of one.
Our great adversary is a master in diplomacy; and he can fit his temptation to every peculiarity of temperament. No physician studies the symptoms of a patient as Satan studies the disposition of a saint; and, with the Christian as with the sinner, he has secured nearly everything when he has gained delay. Alas! that he finds so much of sloth in most of us as affords sufficient fulcrum for the working of his dreadful lever. But he can operate on the more amiable characteristics of a Christian as well as on his sloth; and it is when he is attempting this that he is perhaps most to be feared. One man is by temperament very conscientious—and it is well that the conscience be very tender; but the enemy can assail the believer on the side of conscience as well as on the side of appetite, and he has gained almost all that he seeks, if he can get the conscientiousness intensified into morbid scrupulosity. The timid scrupulous man is then set to sift and settle the minutest points belonging to secondary questions; and, ere the great ends of Christian living have been properly considered, life itself shall have been spent in weighing separately a heap of dust-atoms. In a world like ours, which, to an earnest soul, is literally a battle-field, a man must avoid an over-punctilious attention to minutiae, as he would avoid unthinking rashness.
But present time may be wasted in an opposite direction. Many a young man has been tempted to neglect present commonplace duties, under the thought of husbanding his energies for the doing of some grand and brilliant service when the coveted opportunity shall come. Let such a one assure himself, that he is the victim of a serious self-deception. There is no likelihood of his ever enjoying his anticipated opportunity; but even if it should arrive, he is doing all that he can, in the mean-time, to render himself incapable of embracing it at least in a proper spirit. It is by means of the most careful attention to the will of God, in the ten thousand trifles of daily life, that a man is educated into that spirit of devout obedience which fits him for the higher walks of service. The man, then, who is living in the neglect of these continually recurring duties is not being trained for higher service; nay, he is giving ample proof, that he is altogether destitute of the spirit of a servant. It is possible, indeed, that if the opportunity were afforded, his self-conceit might urge him to attempt some brilliant task; but, in this case, he would not be serving God, and the results to his own soul might be still more melancholy than even those of the procrastination which we are now lamenting.
In fact, almost everything may be made a snare to entrap us into procrastination. Even penitent sorrow for the loss of past time may be so perverted. Our life on earth is really so very brief that it affords us nothing more than opportunity for doing our appointed work; and though it permits us all that we need for the exercise of true repentance, it cannot spare us a single hour for the indulgence of morbid self-upbraidings over the wasted past. A man may so bewail the lost past, as to repeat the sin he is bewailing, by losing the present also. Let us ask forgiveness most humbly for Christ's sake, for our past neglect; but let us also accept forgiveness most thankfully for Christ's sake. And having done so, let us show the depth of our penitence in the constancy and resoluteness of our efforts to redeem the past, by making the utmost that can be made out of the fleeting present. And let our bygone experience induce us to keep our ears closed forever to the flattering promises of this lying spirit of delay.
It is only children who are simple enough to be deceived with the thought of reaching the horizon. There it lies before them, a very little way ahead; and they think that an hour's journey or less will bring them to it. But as they advance, the horizon advances too, and though it seems to be always at hand, they find it impossible to reach. And surely he shows himself to be but a childish man who has not yet discovered that he can never reach that wonderful "to-morrow" with which procrastination has so often deceived him. There it lies, glittering in all its dangerous beauty, so very near as to be almost within his touch; while yet, attempt it as he may, he can never reach it. As he advances, it recedes; till, while he is madly catching at it, he stumbles into an opened grave, and discovers that life is ended before he has begun to live in earnest.
"QUICK, QUICK" were the words adopted by good Bishop Jewel for his motto; and by seeking to live in the spirit of them, he compressed more effective work into a single year than many do into an entire life. Richard Baxter, too, feeling as if the hand of death were already laid on him, and desiring to do what he could while his brief opportunity was left him, lived with an intensity of devotedness which made his single life more fruitful than the lives of a hundred of ordinary Christians. Of the good Bishop Hooper, it is said that he was "spare of diet, sparer of words, and sparest of time." In this same rigid economy of time, lies one of the chief distinguishing marks between the great mass of commonplace disciples and the mighty men of faith who serve God efficiently in their generation. No procrastinator does much for Christ; no procrastinator enjoys much of Christ.
To every one of us, and especially to those of us who have already passed the middle of life, every voice around us is calling out, and urging us to the utmost decision and activity. While no man is warranted to procrastinate, it is double sin and double folly for us to do so. The uncertainty of the very brief season which is now left to us, the remembrance of past neglects, the solemnity of the approaching judgment—the glorious example of Christ and of all Christ-like souls—all are urging on us, "What thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." And if we be waiting for some vainly expected increase of spiritual strength ere we attempt to break loose from the despicable bondage of sloth, let us understand that the case is altogether different. God is calling to us to awake from our sleep; and he is waiting till we cast off our sinful sloth and inveterate procrastination, that he may anoint us with fresh oil, and gird us with his own strength.
"How far from hence to heaven? Not very far, my friend;
A single hearty step, will all the journey end."