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The Perfect Faith

by Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)
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“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him."
                                            —Job 13:16

These words have always seemed to be the expression of the profoundest faith. When David sings, "I will sing unto the Lord because He hath dealt bountifully with me," it seems to be something which all men can understand. It is a gratitude and trust won by visible mercy. But when a soul is able to declare that even under the smiting, ay, even under the slaying, of God it is able still to trust in Him, everyone feels that that soul has reached a very true and deep, sometimes it must seem a rare, faith in Him. 

And yet it is a degree of faith which we know that men must have attained before they can be in any complete or worthy way believers in God. Merely to trust Him when He is manifestly kind to them, is surely not enough. A man's own soul cannot be satisfied with that. A man questions himself whether that is faith at all; whether it is not merely sight. Everywhere and always any lofty conception of trust has been compelled not to stop short of this: such an entrance into the nature and character of the trusted person that even when he seemed to be unreasonable and disappointing and unkind the faithful soul could trust him still. 

Always the man who really wanted to completely trust another man has been obliged to feel that his trust was not complete if it stopped short of that. 

They are words that might be said almost in desperation. The soul, compelled to realize that there was no other hope for it, that if this hope failed it every hope was gone, and feeling that it could not live without some hope, might say, "I must and will keep faith in God. No matter how He fails me I will cling to Him still; for I must cling to something still, and there is nothing else to cling to, and so, though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. "This is the spirit of a familiar hymn which always seemed to me doubtful as the expression of a healthy or even of a possible experience. 

"I can but perish if I go. 
I am resolved to try; 
For if I stay away, 
I know I shall forever die." 

It is a question whether a faith as desperate as that is faith at all, but certainly it is not the faith expressed by these words out of our English version of the Book of Job. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him."* There is something far more cordial about these words. They are not desperate; they anticipate possible disappointment and pain; but they discern a hope beyond them. Their hope lies in the character of God. Whatever His special treatment of the soul may be, the soul knows Him in His character. And for the explanation of His treatment, for the cordial acceptance of His treatment even when it cannot be explained, the soul falls back upon its certainty concerning His character. 
There is no desperation here. There is no mere clinging to God because the soul, looking all about, can find nothing else to cling to. All is positive. God is just what the soul needs, and to its certainty of what God is the soul turns in every distress and perplexity about what God does. Behind its perception of God's conduct, as an illumination and as a retreat, always lies its knowledge of God's character. 

The relations of character and conduct to each other are always interesting. Let us look at them in general for a few moments. The first and simplest idea of their relation is that conduct is the mouth-piece of character. What a man is declares itself through what he does. I see a man steal, and I know he has a thievish heart. I see a soldier fling himself upon the spears of the enemy, and I know that he is brave and patriotic. We know how closely this relation between character and conduct binds the two together. Each is a poor weak thing without the other. Character without conduct is dumb and paralyzed. Its life is there but it is shut out from action, and all man's history bears witness that it is shut out from growth. Mere qualities which do not become conscious of themselves, and do not make themselves effective by contact with the world of things, lie stagnant, and can hardly be called live qualities at all. And on the other hand, conduct without character is thin and most unsatisfying. The pleasant deed which does not mean a kindly heart behind it, the dashing enterprise which is mere physical excitement, the steadiness in work which is merely mechanical habit and routine, the search for learning which is only curiosity, — we all know how weary and unsatisfactory all of these become. No; conduct is the trumpet at the lips of character. Character without conduct is like the lips without the trumpet, whose whispers die upon themselves and do not stir the world. Conduct without character is like the trumpet hung up in the wind which whistles through it, and means nothing. The world has a right to demand that all which claims to be character should utter itself through conduct which can be seen and heard. The world has a right to disallow all claims of character which do not utter themselves in conduct. "It may be real, — it may be good," the world has a right to say," but I cannot know it or test it; and I am sure that however good and real it is, it is deprived of the condition of the best life and growth which is activity." 

This is the first relation between character and conduct. Conduct utters and declares character; but we very soon find that this is not their only relation. It is through conduct that I know first what character is. I cannot enter into the knowledge of character in any other way; but when I have once entered into a knowledge of character through my perception of conduct, then something else occurs which it is very interesting and often very beautiful to watch. By and by I come to know character, to which conduct has first introduced me, by itself; and in its turn it becomes the interpreter of other conduct, so that I, who first knew what a man was by what he did, come afterward to understand the things he does by the knowledge of what he is to which I have attained. 

Does this seem obscure? But it is what each of you is doing every day. Your life touches another man's life in some of the many varied contacts of the world, — you live beside him, you do business in the same street and watch how he behaves, you see that he does honest deeds, that he resists temptations to dishonesty; by and by when your convictions about his conduct have become very clear, after you have watched him for a long time, you go behind his conduct to his character. You say not merely, "He does honest things;" you say, "The man is honest." You not merely know his acts, you know him. That is a different kind of knowledge. He is more than the aggregate of his acts. He is a nature. To know a nature is an exercise of your faculties different from what it would be to know facts. It involves deeper powers in you, and is a completer action of your life. It is thus that, going on through his honest conduct to his character, you have come to know your friend's honest self. And now suppose he does some act which puzzles you. The world shakes its head at him and calls his act dishonest. You yourself do not see the clew by which to understand it. But suppose you are so sure that he is honest that not even the strange and puzzling circumstances of this act can shake you. You say, "I know that he is honest and so this cannot be a cheat." Such a degree of confidence is possible; in many cases it is perfectly legitimate. Each of you has that degree of confidence in some one of your fellow-men. When such a confidence in character exists, do you not see what a circuit you have made? You began with the observation of conduct which you could understand; through that, you entered into knowledge of personal character; from knowledge of character you came back to conduct, and accepted actions which you could not understand. You have made this loop, and at the turn of the loop stands character. It is through character that you have passed from the observation of conduct which is perfectly intelligible into the acceptance of conduct which you cannot understand, but of which you know only who and what the man was that did it. 

All this is quite familiar. And we can see how necessary some such progress of relation to our fellowmen must be. We can see how limited our life would be if we could never pass through study of their actions into confidence in the characters of the men with whom we have to do. Every man would always be on trial. We should always be testing even our dearest friends. Indeed, there could be no such thing as dear friendship; for friendship implies communion with and confidence in character. We should look at the last act of our companion with whom we had kept company for scores of years with the same suspicious and watchful scrutiny with which we examine the first things which a new acquaintance does. Anyone can see how sterile this would make our whole association with our fellow-men. The best that is in any man is locked away until you trust him. When the first scrutiny is over; when you have satisfied yourself that the man whom you are dealing with thinks wisely and means generously; when, having first made his actions a key to his character, you have come to make his character a key to his actions, — then you begin to get the real benefit of whatever richness and helpfulness of nature there may be in him. 

The same is true about every one of the higher associations of mankind. It is true about the association of man with Nature. Man watches Nature at first suspiciously, sees what she does, is ready for any sudden freak or whim or mood; but by and by he comes to know of Nature's uniformity. He understands that she is self-consistent. He sees what she means by all her actions. He is able to state what he calls her laws. That is really an entrance into the character of Nature. Man has come to know not merely what Nature does, but also in some degree what Nature is. And after that, when he interprets every new phenomenon by the established laws, he is only doing by Nature what we have already seen him doing by his fellow -man. He has passed around the loop. Beginning with observed and criticised conduct, he has passed, through sympathy with character, into an acceptance of conduct otherwise wholly mysterious to him. 
Or think about a man's relation to any institution to which at last he gives the direction of his life. A man observes the actions of a church, and they so win his confidence that he comes to believe in the church's character as a depositary of divine wisdom and of the spirit of God. When he has once come to that, the church may offer him most unreasonable dogmas and bid him do most unspiritual things and he will not rebel against the utterances of that voice which is to him the very voice of God. Everywhere this circuit marks the course by which man is brought to unquestioning submission. He starts with the watching of conduct. He goes on into the perception of character, and on the warrant of apprehended character he accepts conduct which in itself bewilders and perplexes him. 

And now we want to carry all this over to our thought of God, and see how it supplies the key to that great utterance of faith which is in our text, — "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." It is from God's treatment of any man that that man learns God. What God does to him, that is what first of all he knows of God. "His creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life," the tendency, the evident tendency of God's conduct toward him to make him good and happy, — that is the first revelation which he meets. That revelation we can imagine as stopping short with itself, and becoming the whole religion of a man. The man might say, "Yes, I see, the sun is bright. I feel the air is soft and gentle. I recognize that the whole world is tempting me to honesty and industry and purity. God is feeding me, body and soul, and I take His food and thank Him for it. "That might be all. The man might get no farther than just that bare acceptance of treatments of God, each one of which, separately taken up and criticised, challenged his approval and made him see that it was good. And evidently, if that were all, if the man had really not gone beyond that, there would be no ground on which the man should, nay none on which he could, accept any treatment of God which appeared to him harsh or unwise. If the air roughened or the sun grew dim, or if the world tempted him to evil instead of enticing him to good, he, holding God always on trial, judging God anew by each new treatment he received, must of necessity be thrown off from God by each new disappointment. He could not help it. The moment God's conduct went against his judgment, he must disown God. 

But suppose the other case. Suppose that the man, behind and through the treatment that God has given him, has seen the character of God. God has been just to him. He has not rested merely in the instances of God's justice, but has risen to the conception that God is just. God has been loving to him. He does not merely recount God's loving acts, but he sees God, and says, "Yes, God is love." He goes up along the conduct to the character. He goes up along the sunlight to the sun. His nature, made to know God's nature, does know Him with immediate apprehension. The acts of God toward him are, as it were, the ushers which open the door and lead us into His presence. When we are once there the ushers may retire. We may forget the special acts of love or justice which first showed us what He was, and live in the direct perception of His character. If that is possible, then evidently we are ready to see each new act which God does toward us with all the illumination of His realized character upon it. Let us be certain that He did it, and we know that it must be just and kind because He is love and justice. Let me know that the water flows directly from the fountain, and it must be pure because the fountain, I know, is purity itself. The taste of corruption which seems to be in the water must really be in me who taste it. God being good cannot do evil. I, standing where all my experience has brought me, clear in His presence, know that He is good. Therefore, however cruel His deeds may seem, they cannot shake my certainty that He is kind; however unreasonable His deeds may seem, they cannot shake my certainty that He is wise. Therefore, in the tumult and distress of what seems to be the ruin of my life, I can still stand calm and say, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him." 

This, then, is our doctrine of man's relation to the conduct and the character of God. Through God's conduct man knows God's character, and then through God's character God's conduct is interpreted. Such a doctrine neither sets man in the miserable and false position of forever judging God by his own poor standards, nor, on the other hand, does it call on man to bow in blindness and accept as good the will of a God of whom he knows nothing because that God has borne no witness of Himself. These are the two dangers of all man's search after God, — one, that man will keep his idea of God forever on test and trial, and never cordially accept Him and enlarge his own life by trusting faith in the life that is greater than his; the other, that man will make a God of his own imagining, and never verify his thought of Him by any reference to the facts of human life. Against both of these dangers the doctrine of man's trust in God which I have tried to state attempts to guard. Man knows God's character by God's conduct, and then interprets God's conduct by God's character. And if to each individual's observation of God's ways you add the observation of the race in all its generations, which the man who is in true sympathy with humanity may use in large degree as if it were his own, it does appear as if you had a doctrine out of which must come at once intelligence and reverence, — the culture of the watchful eye and of the trustful heart together; the possibility both of David's reasoning, "I will praise Him because He has dealt lovingly with me," and of Job's faith, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. " 

It is interesting to see (as we have already seen to some extent) how this method of faith prevails in all the relations of the human mind to the objects of its trust. There is a possible confidence of soul in soul, won by the experience of the trusted soul's trustiness, which has again and again enabled one human being to say of another, "Though he slay me, I will trust him still." Think of the old story in the Book of Genesis. See Abraham and Isaac — the father and the son — travelling together from the land of the Philistines to the mountain of Moriah, which God had showed to him. Behold the preparations for the sacrifice; hear the boy's artless and pathetic question, "Father, behold the fire and the wood! where is the lamb? "Then see how gradually the boy comes first to suspect and then to know that it is for him that all this preparation has been made. He is to be the victim. There is no word even of remonstrance. Isaac has learned long back to trust his father as one who knew the will of God; and so when now Abraham looks him in the face and says to him, "God wills this, my son," the child's confidence bears the strain and does not falter. "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him," we can almost hear the boy say as we see him submit to be bound and to be laid upon the wood. 

Turn for another instance to a later day in the same Jewish history. Remember how the "daughter of the warrior Gileadite" gave up her youth and hope and life in free acceptance of her father's will. Jephthah, her father, had vowed that he would offer to the Lord whatever first came out to meet him when he returned victorious. We need not sympathize with the reckless folly of the vow in order to feel the beauty of the self-consecration with which his child accepted for herself its dreadful consequences. The poet has unfolded the simple pathos of the Bible story and made us feel the honor for him who by all his loving care had deserved the trust with which the maiden sings from the land that lies beyond the pain of dying, — 

"My God, my land, my father, these did move 
Me from my bliss of life that Nature gave, 
Lowered softly with a threefold cord of love 
Down to a silent grave. 
"It comforts me in this one thought to dwell, 
That I subdued me to my father's will, 
Because the kiss he gave me e'er I fell 
Sweetens the spirit still." 

There is a faith that not merely welcomes the fatal blow but remains even after the blow has done its work. Though He has slain me, yet do I trust Him. 

If we turn from sacred to classic story, the same thing is there too, and we see how everywhere human nature loves the spectacle of such unquestioning faith. The Roman Virginius when his daughter is threatened with insult cries with a voice full of woe and love together, "There is no way but this," and as he smites her, Virginia falls without a word or look except of loving trust. Or, again, we may recall the most pathetic of all the ancient tragedies, in which the gentle daughter of the Grecian leader gives her life to make possible the success of her father's army on its way to Troy. At first there is terrible remonstrance and clinging to this sweet, earthly life; Iphigenia cries, "The light of heaven is sweetest of things for men to behold, but that below is nought; and mad is he who seeks to die. To live dishonorably is better than to die gloriously." But soon her father's terrible conviction takes possession of her. Her faith in him which he has won in all the years of his fatherly kindness does not desert her now; and at the last she is seen standing, — a figure of exalting light and triumph and beauty, by his side, waiting to be sacrificed. "Oh, father, I am here for thee, and I willingly give my body on behalf of my country and of the whole land of Greece, that leading it to the altar of the goddess they may sacrifice it, since this is ordained. . . . Thou hast nurtured me for a glory to Greece, and I will not refuse to die. " 
So everywhere the beings who most strongly and justly lay claim to our confidence pass by and by beyond the testing of their actions, and commend themselves to us and command our faith in them by what we know they are. It would be strange and very dreadful if this were not true of God, if to the end of all our intercourse with Him we always had to try each treatment which He sent to us by that one act's evident reasonableness, justice, and kindness. That were to live in the most meagre relationship to Him with whom our whole soul's desire that our relationship should be most intimate and rich. That hateful watch on God to see whether He would not fail us after all, that suspicious guard over ourselves lest we should give Him too extravagantly more of our heart's trust than He had deserved or justified, would make religion odious. There never has been a religion really deserving of the name which has not gone beyond that and in some way, in some degree, trusted the Godhood which it dimly saw, because of what it dimly knew Him to be, even in all its inability to understand His actions. 

This has been true of all religions, but it is most true of Christianity. When Christ came, it was distinctly for this purpose, to make men know God, — God Himself, God in, behind. His actions. This was the purpose of the Incarnation. No longer on difficult and hazardous deductions from His treatment of them were men to depend alone for the understanding of God's nature. "The Light of the Knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," says Paul; "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father," says Jesus. Still helped, no doubt, by what they saw God do, but shown by Jesus what God was behind His doing, what the God was who did all that was done to them, — so they who received the truth of Christ were to attain to faith in the fatherliness of their Heavenly Father. 

In the few moments which remain, let us consider how such a faith must shape and influence our life. I have already spoken of it all along with reference to the way in which it must affect our thoughts of joy and sorrow. Have not your hearts, my friends, at least sometimes, caught sight of a possible faith in God by which you might believe in Him, believe on Him, trust Him, even although no tokens of His presence or His love came to you in the shape of special pleasures, or even of the ordinary joys of living, — even although there came to you from Him what men who simply saw His treatment of you, and knew nothing of your insight into His character, thought as they watched it must be a sure destruction of your faith? To stand with the good things of life all stripped away, to stand beaten and buffeted by storms of disaster and disappointment, to stand with all our brethren saying, "Behold, how God hates him, " and yet to know assuredly in our own hearts that God loves us, to know it so assuredly, with the intercourse that lies between our heart and His, that we can freely let go the outward tokens of His love, as the most true and trusty friends do not need to take gifts from one another for assurance of their affection, — this surely is the perfection of a faithful life. It is the gathering up of all happinesses into one happiness which is so rich that it can live without them all, and yet regally receives them into itself as the ocean receives the rivers. 

But happiness is not the only one, nor the richest one, of the gifts of God. There are two other gifts which every true man values vastly more than happiness. They are light and work. It would be sad indeed if our principle did not apply to them; but it does! To stand in the darkness and yet know that God is light; to want to know the truth about a thousand mysteries, the answer to a thousand problems, and not to find the truth, the answers, anywhere, and yet to know beyond a peradventure that God is not hiding from us anything which it is possible and useful for us to know; to stand in the darkness and yet know that God is light, — that is a great and noble faith, a faith to which no man can come who does not know God. If I know Him, know how He, by the very necessity of being what He is, must value character in us more than acquirement, then I can understand how He can permit knowledge to be hidden from us till the time when its acquirement will bring the richest help to character; and, knowing that, I can live unrebelliously in darkness though I am always seeking after light, and though I am certain all the time that God is light and desires light for all His creatures. 

And so too about work. To want to do some useful labor in the world, to think that useless life is only premature death, to find ourselves apparently shut out from usefulness, and yet to believe that God wants us to grow into His likeness by whom all the work of the great working universe proceeds, — that is indeed a puzzle to one's faith. It may be that God used to give you plentiful chance of work for Him. Your days went singing by, each winged with some enthusiastic duty for the Master whom you loved. Then it was easy to believe that He was training you; His contact with your life was manifest; the use He made of you was very clear. By and by came a change. He took all that away. He snatched your work out of your hands, or made your hands so weak with sickness that they let it drop themselves. What then? Have you been able still, in idleness, in what seems uselessness, to keep the assurance of His care for you? Have you been able still to be satisfied with knowing just that here you were, ready to be used if He wanted to use you, ready also to be laid aside if He thought best? That has depended upon whether all your old work with Him really brought you to know Him. If it did, if in it all, while you delighted in doing it, the principal blessing of it all was that it permitted you to look into God's soul and see how self-complete and perfect and supreme He was; how, after all His workings, it was not in His works but in His nature, not in His doing but in His being, that God's true glory lay; if as you worked with Him, you really looked into His nature and discerned all this, — then when He takes your work away and bids you no longer to do good and obedient things but only to be good and obedient, surely that is not the death of faith. That may be faith's transfiguration. You can be idle for Him, if so He wills, with the same joy with which you once labored for Him. The sick-bed or the prison is as welcome as the harvest-field or the battlefield, when once your soul has come to value as the end of life the privilege of seeking and of finding Him. 

So out of all our thought this afternoon there comes one prayer which sums up everything: Lord, by all Thy dealings with us, whether of joy or pain, of light or darkness, let us be brought to Thee. Let us value no treatment of Thy grace simply because it makes us happy or because it makes us sad, because it gives us or denies us what we want; but may all that Thou sendest us bring us to Thee, that knowing Thy perfectness we may be sure in every disappointment that Thou art still loving us, and in every darkness that Thou art still enlightening us, and in every enforced idleness that Thou art still using us; yea, in every death that Thou art giving us life, as in His death Thou didst give life to Thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen! r
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Archived by Robert L. Cobb
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