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The Power of an Uncertain Future

by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

"Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the 
hour wherein the Son of man cometh."    --Matthew 25:13

Jesus spoke these words at the close of the Parable of the Ten Virgins. The people were still under the impression that the parable had made upon them. It is the air of expectancy that pervades it which gives the parable its character. It all looks forward. It is busied with the future, not the past.  The waiting virgins, the sleepless eyes, the well-filled lamps, and then the hurried stir, the rustling  garments, the passing voices, and the opening and closing doors, as all the movement is expectant, and is full of one idea : Be ready, for a future is coming. With new issues -new destinies and new duties. Forget the past ! Look forward ! 

That is the tone of the parable, and it is the tone of the Gospel always. Stretching out into an infinite distance, it shows the endless future of human life. It lays its hand upon every soul that is asleep and says, "Wake, for your work is not done yet."  New developments of truth, new perfections of character, and infinite plans of God in which we are to take part, and these are the burden of the Gospel, and of the spirit of these the Parable of the Ten Virgins is full. It is all alive with expectancy. It is a parable of the Future. " Behold the Bridegroom cometh! " 

There are times, I think, when this character of the Gospel seems hard and almost cruel to us.  There are times when the thought of expectancy is oppressive. Sometimes the soul is simply weary, and wants to lie down and go no farther. It seems to have done enough, to have lived enough. There is much in the past which is precious to it, but the thought of going on and making new history for itself is dreadful to it. Life seems behind it. To turn and see that life is yet before it seems very hard. But always the Gospel keeps its character. It will allow no resting in the past or in the present. It is always holding up its future and insisting that its disciples should live in " the power of an endless life." 

But this verse of warning which comes at the end of the parable has one special point. It brings out one kind of power in the anticipations of the future which is very striking.  Watch, Jesus says,  not merely because there is to be a future, but because you cannot know what the future is. Watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." Here is a sort of life enjoined of watchfulness. I hope we shall see clearly enough before we are done that watchfulness is not a single act, nor a special habit, but a whole new character of a man's life. And this character of a whole life is represented as coming out of the fact that the future of the life is uncertain. There is one sort of life that a man will live who anticipates no future at all, who lives wholly in the present. There is another sort of life for the man whose future is all clear before him, all ticketed and dated.  There is yet another life for the man who knows that larger and stranger things are coming than he comprehends, who expects surprises. I want to speak of this last kind of life. Our subject is "The Power of an Uncertain Future." Watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."

We have one illustration of our subject always before us in the life of childhood. I suppose that it would not be possible to get a better idea of what Jesus meant by the watchfulness that would become the character of one who was always looking for His undated coming, than we should have if we could understand perfectly the strong and subtle influence which the uncertainty and apparent infiniteness of the life before him has upon a child. The alertness, the receptivity, the modesty, the eagerness and easy enlargement or readiness for great things, which belong to the best childhood, seem to me to be the very qualities which the Gospel is always trying to make in Christians, and all these qualities belong essentially to the uncertainty with which a child's future hovers before his eyes. If you could take a very high average of human attainment,  something considerably beyond what the majority of men have reached, and fix that as the uniform level of men's accomplishment, if you could decree absolutely that every life should go just as far as that and no life should go any farther, you certainly would have taken the spring out of the ambition of very many young aspiring souls. You would have taken away the uncertainty, and so you would have destroyed the romance and attractiveness. Probably not half of them will reach that line, but probably those who do reach it will go beyond it if you do not set them a limit there, but leave them all infinity to aspire into. One will certainly shoot his arrows higher if he shoots them out-of-doors, with all the sky to shoot them into, than if he sends them up against the ceiling of a room that seems just as high as he can reach. 

And so it is the child's uncertainty about his life that gives it all those characteristics that I spoke of. He does not know which way it will go. It is full of wonderment. Every door tempts him to open it, to see what lies beyond. Every corner tempts him to turn it. And so, just as you or I, going to Paris or London, will walk more in a day than any Londoner or Parisian in three, because our curiosity is always kept alive by the uncertain- ties of the unfamiliar streets, and so the child will make more character in a week than we grown people will in months, because life, not having yet hardened itself into routines and certainties, is always vividly interesting to him and is always enticing him a little farther on. 

There must be grown men, old men, here today who look back to nothing with such wistful longing as to the interest that life had for them when they were children. Can it be, indeed, that this dull and faded thing is the same that once flashed and sparkled with such bewitching colors? Living has disenchanted them with life. And if they look into it they will see that what has gone out of life is simply its uncertainty. They have solved all the problems. They have opened all the closets. Once, when they got up in the morning, they wondered what they would do that day; they thought of a thousand things that might happen before the sun went down. Now, they know just what will happen and just what they will do at every hour of the day. Once each New Year's day was a pinnacle on which they stood and looked out into an enticing splendor of vague possibilities. Now, on New Year's day they balance their books, and, presuming that they will make and spend about the same amount of money in the next year as in the last, settle down to the dull content of a certain competence. So the interest of life, you see, depends upon its uncertain futures. It will not do to solve the problems of life, unless in solving them you open new ones. If you can do that, then you can keep the interest of living. If you can open a new prospect, with all the splendor of vague distance about It, yet farther on, then you can afford to go over And examine in detail and so lose the romantic beauty of the prospect that has already opened to you. 

My dear friends, all this seems to me to lead to very serious truth. It seems to me to show that life is certain to become dull and uninteresting and weary to an old man, to every man as he grows old, unless some future beyond life opens before him, which shall be to his old age all that the yet un-tried life was to his boyish dreams. The boy dreamed of the infiniteness of life, and there was color in his cheek and brightness in his eye and a dewy freshness in everything he said and did.  That is all gone with you, perhaps gone so far back that it seems as remote as the book of Genesis when something calls it back to you. Is there any possible thing that can replace it for you? Only that opening of another future, with new uncertainties, which has turned many an old man into a child again as he stood at the gateway of the Everlasting Life. When this life is exhausted, when its crooked streets have all been trodden to the end, still the interest need not have gone out of living if only from the hilltop of experience new and untrodden ways can open themselves before us, rolling on into the mystery of eternity. Then one may die with as true vitality, as eager curiosity, as he has ever lived. To him the interest of life is still preserved, as alone it can be preserved, by the power of an uncertain future. 

There are some touching instances of this feeling that an unknown future is necessary to any real pleasurable interest in living. Have you never heard people ask one another whether they would be willing to live their lives over again, and has it not sometimes seemed sad to see how almost everybody said "No" almost with a shudder, as if the idea was almost dreadful to him? It is not really that men's lives have been so unhappy, so that is not why they would dread a repetition so. There have been portions of their lives that they would dread. There are places, if we had to live our lives over again just as we have lived them, where we should set our teeth in grim misery as we came in sight of the old blunder or the terrible catastrophe which we had almost forgotten; but on the whole there has been more of happiness than wretchedness in all our lives. But the main reason why people shudder when you ask them to live their lives again is that the proposition seems to them so utterly dreary. A life with no surprises! A life where you knew just what was coming! There is no succession of terrible blows that can fall upon a man that could begin to be so wretched as the dulness of such a life would be. 

Or take another question: You ask yourself, ' Would I have lived my life, if I had known at the  outset just what it was to be? If all the picture could have been set before my baby-brain, would my baby-hands have been reached out to welcome it, or would they have thrust it impatiently away?'' I am afraid there are a good many people here who, either from general temper or from some temporary mood that they are in, would think the answer to that question only too plain.  "Never!" they say.  "Never would I have lived if I had known beforehand what life was! " And yet how good it is for these people that they have lived ! How much they have added to the world's stock. How much happiness they themselves have had in spite of all. They have been tempted on, spared the worst misery of anticipation, and never wholly deserted by eagerness and hope, through the power of an uncertain future. 

My dear friends, if we feel this, what can we say ? Is there one of us that dare complain of God because He keeps our futures uncertain ? Does it not put something like a reason underneath these endless changes by which our plans are always being broken up and our best hopes disappointed ? Is it good for a man to grow gloomy over that which is the only source of interest, hopefulness, and joy in life? 

These words are very general; let us take our text somewhat more closely. This future in whose uncertainty the power resides is spoken of as the "day and hour wherein the Son of Man cometh,"  So what day and hour is meant ? The Son of Man is Christ Himself. His coming is certainly not a time when He draws near to the world, for He is in the world always. It must be, then, some time or times in which His presence becomes manifest. Such comings there are several of. Men discuss which of them the text refers to, and whether to the final coming for judgment, the coming to every man at death, or the coming of the Spirit at a man's conversion. Let us not try to settle which it means, but let us take all three. It is good for us; it cultivates the life called "watchfulness" within us, not to know when Christ is coming to judge the world, when He is going to call us to Himself by death, when He is coming by some great experience to our souls, and the unknown coming for judgment, the unknown time of death, the unknown spiritual experience. 

I.  Take first the coming of Christ to judge this world. Clearly the Bible tells of some such time. Clearly there is to be some close of the present state of things and some new dispensation, to begin with some peculiar manifestation of Christ to men. Forever in these chapters of the Bible runs the prophecy of the opened heaven and the Son of man sitting there throned among His angels. " He Cometh, He cometh to judge the world, and the people with equity." But yet the time is all uncertain. " Of that day and hour knoweth no man." Perhaps for cycles upon cycles yet this tangled web of forces may move on as it is moving now. Perhaps already the great wheels are trembling on the brink of stoppage. Science no more than revelation ventures to guess the time; though science, just like revelation, catches glimpses of the coming fact. 

And then, when we ask what the effect of this uncertain future on the world's character is, we are struck first of all by this, and that every attempt (and men have always with a strange persistency kept making their attempts) to fix what God has left uncertain has done harm and not good to those who made their guesses. Certainly such attempts have not helped the religion on which they tried to fasten themselves. The Apostles evidently, after Jesus had gone away, believed that He would come back while some of them were yet alive, but that was not the religion that inspired the zeal of Paul and John.  Again, as the thousand years after Christ approached toward the end of the ninth century, you know there was a strange and widespread impression that when the thousand years were over, Jesus would come. The people waited. From many a housetop, as, in the night, one century gave the world over to the next, eyes must have watched the heavens for the coming Lord. But we do not find that such a confident expectancy made the world better. Certainly there were few centuries darker than the ninth, the century of wars among the nations, and gross corruption in the Church, and ignorance and misery in private life. Again, many of us are old enough to remember how, forty years ago, a vast number of our people believed that on a certain mentioned day the world would end and Christ the Judge appear; but certainly, among the multitudes who looked for such a crisis, no one ever heard that virtue or religion came to any wonderful development, that life was purer, holier, profounder, than among their unbelieving neighbors. Nor will the most enthusiastic supporter of any of the Millenarian theories that have attempted to tell what is to be the end of things with more or less exactness, venture to say that his theory has established for itself any right to be called necessary even to the highest Christian life. 

No ; history shows us that where men have thought they knew the end, it has not been good for them. It is better that they should not know. And certainly we can see why. Can we not understand that the best culture for the world is just in that idea under which God has kept the world living,  and the idea that all these things were temporary, and yet an entire ignorance as to the length of their endurance? If the world has been saved from entire sordidness, if its heart in every age has aspired after loftier things, if it has been able to keep in its remembrance that character was the one permanent thing, if thus it has been able to sacrifice other more manifest things to the invisible majesty of character, the reason in large part has been that in all ages men have believed that the time would come when all these things would pass away. The "eternal hills" were not eternal. The calm heavens were some day to part in fire, and the Judgment Day of the world to come. On the other hand, if the world of men, believing in the coming Judgment, has still worked on, toiled on the substance of this perishable earth as if it were imperishable, developed its resources and so made it a fitter instrument for their own development, it has been because no day for the catastrophe stared them in the face, paralyzing their healthy activity, and blighting their courage. To live in one's work, and yet above one's work, is what one needs. To be a servant of the earth, and yet superior to the earth, where it has been put by God, is the lesson that the human soul always has been learning; and that lesson it has been taught by the power of the world's uncertain future. 

I think it is just the way in which a wise parent treats his child during the preparatory years in which he lives still as a child under the parent's roof.  He lets him know that that home-life is temporary. He opens windows through which the boy can see the life that he must live for himself out in the world, when this first dispensation shall be over.  And at the same time he draws no line, fixes no date, makes the child-life as real as it could be if it were to last forever. So God trains this world for the next. So He keeps Time full of solemn watchfulness for Eternity. So, in the ears of a humanity which is to be educated by the ministry of perishable things for those which are imperishable, He seems to be always uttering those unutterably solemn words: "Seeing that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God?"

If we can see much reason why the world should be left in ignorance about the time of Christ's coming to be its Judge, we can understand even more of how good it is for every man not to know just when the word of the Lord will come to him, as it does come to every man, to call him out of this state of being to a higher. I suppose that we have all thought, sometimes, what differences it would make in all our life if we all knew from the beginning just when we were to be called to die. Certainly we do not know, men do not know themselves, how much the certainty that they must die some time influences and controls them. It is not often on their lips. It is not often consciously upon their hearts. But there is something in the life of every man that would be changed in a moment if he suddenly were made aware that he were to stay here upon the earth forever. We say sometimes that men live here just as if they never were to die; we think that all this hurrying crowd upon the street has utterly forgotten death and hurries on as if it were to pour up and down these thronged avenues forever; but it is not so. Every man has in his nature the influence of the fact that he always knows,  though it is not always consciously before his mind. 

The traveller in the city is always different from the citizen, though he has no time fixed for his departure, and even prolongs his visit to many years. So the pilgrim-and-stranger feeling is somewhere in all of us. It differs in us all. It is an awful sense of brooding mystery in some, a tireless and hurried energy in others, and in almost all it is a certain tenderness and dearness gathering about the earth which we are certainly some day to leave. But just consider what the consequences would be if this vague certainty were brought down and made definite, and each man knew from the beginning of his course just when to him would come the summons that no man can disobey. 

The first thing that I think of is the great decrease of physical energy and work that it would probably make in the world if every man knew just when he was to die. One of the strongest springs of action among men is the desire for the preservation of their life, and perhaps it is the strongest spring of action. It is this, the desire to prolong their life. that has in large part broken up the forests and opened the mines and bridged the rivers and built the cities. This, in large part, is what one hears through all the clatter of the world's machineries and the hoarse roar of business, and the personal desire for life. It is the clangor of the hammers with which men are building walls between themselves and death. This, too, is at the root of almost all our institutions: society, government, and they are all to secure men in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ; and of these great ambitions life stands first and lies deepest of all. 

And, then, consider how, in the uncertainty as to the time of death, every man's labor lasts almost and some men's last quite  up to the time of death. Almost or quite up to the very last they still contribute to the wealth and progress of the world. No sight of the approaching end unmans their courage and makes them drop their tools before the time. Think, if you please, how many men, if they knew that their dying day was only one year off, would feel no spirit and no call to work during that year, the hope of self-preservation being definitely taken from them. And, then, think how much the world would have been robbed of, if all the labor that her millions of great and little workers have done within a year of the time when they were called away were taken out of the aggregate ; and we can see already some reason why the cloud is not lifted, and men walk on, working and living and hoping, up to the very door of the other life. 

And when I think again, not of what the world would lose, but of what the character and culture of the men themselves would lose, if the day when they were to leave the earth were known to them from the day when they first entered on it, then it seems clearer still. You train your little child for all the duties of his manhood. From his very cradle the thought of " when he is a man " is before you as your inspiration and your guide. God takes your child, still in his childhood, to the higher education of the perfect world. The training for this life that you gave him, if it was really sound and true and godly, was the best training that he could have taken to the Eternal School; but could you have given it to him if you had known that he was to die so young, that he was never to mingle among men in all the ministries and competitions of the world? 

Or, again, could a young man train himself to prudence, self-constraint, truth, and all the qualities that make the best successes of men's middle-age, if he knew from the start that just upon the threshold of that middle-age the angel would touch him and he must go away? That eager student, would he have studied so if he had always known that his knowledge would never be used here, that with its new richness all about him he was to lie down and die?  And then the happiness that comes to hearts that look forward into years of friendship, and could it have flowed in so abundantly and cloudlessly upon the soul if that soul had foreseen the coming separation? Still, indeed, there would be left the highest values of knowledge and the highest sources of happiness; still the student might have known that he could learn nothing that was really true, for which he would not be the richer in whatever world he lived; still the friend might twine bis friendship all the closer that it might be strong enough not to break even with the strain that carried it beyond the grave; but all the inferior sources of culture and happiness, which, though inferior, are pure, on which we all so much depend, must surely suffer no blight. Surely it is a good, kind God, a blessed Father, who lets us know that He is coming, but does not tell us when. We are like children off at school, to whom the father sends word that he will bring them home, that so they may study all the harder and be ready, but does not fix the day lest they should drop the books altogether and merely stand looking for him out of the window, wasting their time. God will bring the shortness of life home to all of us so as to make us say,  "We will work the harder," but He will not let it weigh upon any of us so as to set us thinking, " It is not worth while to work." 

And we must think not merely of what such a certainty about the time of our death would take away from us, but also of what it would bring into our lives. It would set us all to preparing for death in a narrow and special sense. It is not good for a man to devote himself to preparation for dying. It is preparation for living that you need. When, in mediaeval times, men, feeling that death was near them, used to give up their work, lay down their arms, and, like the cloistered emperor, put on the cowl and go and live in monasteries, and nay, build their coffins and keep their epitaphs written on their cell-walls, as we know that it was a mere makeshift.  It was better perhaps than nothing, but it was an attempt to crowd into a year or two what a whole lifetime should have done, to force by unnatural means that intimacy with the God to whom they 
were to go which should have been healthily gathered out of the daily experiences of a long, devout, obedient life. You cannot so make the perfect friendship any more than you can make the lower friendship so. To take away the uncertainty about the time of death would have a tendency (which the best men would resist, but to which multitudes of men would yield) to give the bulk of life up to indifference and recklessness and crowd the last few months or days with an artificial religiousness that would have little power to prepare the soul for its great change. The only real way to " Prepare to meet thy God " is to live with thy God so that to meet Him shall be nothing strange. 

So, surely, it is better for us as God has appointed it. So, surely, the picture of a faithful man, by every duty of his life preparing himself for the next duty, and so at last finding that living has prepared him for dying, and laying his life back into the hands of a Father in whose strength he has lived it all, and this is the highest illustration of the power of an uncertain future to influence and ripen and prepare us for more than we foresee. 

And now, but little time remains for me to speak of the last of the three comings of the Son of Man. Christ comes to all last for judgment, Christ comes to each of us at death, but Christ comes also in the hour of conversion, when He claims a man for His servant and bids him take up his cross and follow Him. In the religion of our day, conversion is made a less prominent and separate moment in a man's life than it used to be considered in the religion of other days. If this change means that all the life is recognized as being more full of God, and so lifted up nearer to the level of the conversion-hour, then it is well; but if it means that the supernatural power of the conversion itself is being disallowed, and so the whole life brought down to the level of every-day worldliness, then it is bad. All Christian experience bears witness that there are times when that Saviour who is always present and always seeking us makes Himself peculiarly manifest to our souls and asks us to be His. It may be in connection with some great outward change that comes to us ; or it may be something wholly of the inner life, unseen, unheard by any one beside ourselves; but do you not know that such times surely come? I speak to any servant of the Saviour here: Were there not days, perhaps years, when you went on in your own way, Christ by you always but you not seeing Him, Christ speaking to you and you not hearing Him? But at last there came a time when He looked on you with a new face and you did see Him; when He spoke to you with a new voice and you did hear Him! That is the time, be it a moment or a day or a year of a man's conversion,  the beginning of a new life. And now, can you not see that it makes a great difference whether that supreme meeting of your soul and God, which must come and which is fraught with such stupendous consequences, is to come at some fixed time, when you have reached some special age, when you are ready for some special study; or, on the other hand, whether it may come at any moment and at any moment between the solemn moment when you first find that you have a soul and that other solemn moment when you give your soul up to your Master and your Judge? If the first, then you may wait, wait unexpectantly until you hear Him coming. If the other, then any time in the ever-turning journey of life may bring you into sight of Him ; any sound close by your side may be His footstep. This next moment may be His moment to bless your soul. Nay, this moment, now may be His time, and you may be letting it pass just because you are not knowing that it may be any moment, and so are not listening every moment for the slightest indication of His coming. 

More and more the law of the Christian life seems to me to be this †that Christ the Saviour comes to every man, and that they that are watching for Him and expecting Him know Him when He comes, and enter with Him into some higher life. " They that were ready went in with Him to the marriage"; these words of the old parable tell the whole story. Ah! yes, as we look back over our life, how sudden always have been the comings of the Son of Man! We looked for Him off in some distance, and suddenly His voice spoke to us close at our side. Again we said to ourselves in some proud moment of self-exaltation,  "Now He must be near me; now He will speak to me" but that proud, selfish moment has gone by, utterly cold and dead, without a sight or sound of Christ; and then, when we had just passed down off from the mountain where we hoped for so much, into a valley of humility where we expected nothing, and then everything around us has been radiant with His presence, and He has spoken to us words of wisdom and a Brother's tenderest love. We have expected Him, and He has not come; we have forgotten Him, and He has been with us. The deepest experiences of our life have taken us unawares. In such an hour as we thought not the Son of Man has come. 

Every man knows this of his life, and so what is the law of lite that it ought to make for us?  It is not hard to see. It must be always useless to prepare oneself against this or that moment, to make up conditions for what we fancy are to be the most critical times of life. That is spasmodic and unreal. But to be so possessed with the conviction that God is around us always, and may show Himself to us in any commonest moment, that we are always alert and ready to receive Him, and that is the true condition of the soul. Sometimes from mere expectancy you may be deceived ; sometimes it may seem as if God spoke to you when it is only your own longing that He may speak that makes you think it is His voice; but I think it is better to be mistaken so a hundred times than once not to be ready, and so say, " Oh, it is nothing!" when He really does Speak. It is better, after all, to be so superstitious that we find God where He is not, than to be so sceptical that we will not find Him where He is. 

Have we not, then, come at the end to something like a clear tangible notion of what the watching is to which the Saviour urged His disciples long ago, and to which He still urges us?  It is not an act, not a habit, but a character. It is a constant alertness of soul which, believing that Christ does come near to people, is determined that He shall not come near us and escape us because we are asleep. It has no plan for the future, and so is always ready to catch any intimation of His plan. It is profoundly conscious that the world is full of Him, and so is ready to hear His voice from any unexpected corner. It believes, just as those disciples believed, that Jesus never died for men and left them to their fate, but that He will certainly come back to claim the souls He died for. It lives in prayer and work, both of them keeping it open and dependent; and by and by He comes, and they, being ready, enter in with Him to His home and their home in God. 

One would like to speak to all these young people very earnestly. Do not think that the life you are beginning has shown you yet all its mystery. Do not think you have got to the height or the depth of it when you have just found it pleasant and sunny. It is more solemn and profound than that itt will bring vast experiences. To you, more wonderful by far than you know yourself, and capable of far greater intercourses than you have imagined,  the Son of Man will certainly come. Do not manufacture experiences. Do not pay too much regard 
to those who shout to you, "Lo, here is Christ!" or, ''Lo, He is there!"  but be so expectant of Him always, keep so in the pure way of His commandments, pray so earnestly for Him to come, that when He does come you will know it;  when He calls you, you will answer; when He says, "Come to me,"  you will leave all and follow Him.  Let your life be that, and then one hardly dares to say which is the holier, the time here while you are watching for His coming, or the Eternity hereafter when He shall have fully come and received you to Himself. May God grant you first the one and then the other I.
 

Archived by Robert L. Cobb
-Administrator, News For Christians Dot Com
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