Do you remember the story of Jacob’s ladder? A young man, the first night away from home, lying asleep in the desert, only the stars for his companions, he dreams a dream, – “And behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.”
You and I live on the earth, but we want to get to heaven; and the way to do it seems to be prefigured in this dream of the patriarch. It is something above us we are to reach. Not only is the way to it narrow, but upward. What was merely a dream to the young man in the desert, at his start in life, should be grave thought to every young man and woman at their start.
I do not mean to say that every thing in a Christian life depends upon the kind of start you make; for I know some men who have made a very bad start, and afterward recovered from it. But a wrong start complicates matters, and needlessly multiplies dangers. It is a great thing to recognize the necessity of a right start; to feel that you cannot afford to make a failure; to find where that right start is to be made, and then follow it up in the right way.
Now, what do you want to do to reach heaven, to obtain God’s favor, to secure your own peace? To do this, you need to lead a spiritual life. How are you to do that?
By not only beginning, but beginning at the beginning. There are a great many persons who want to have all spiritual promises, to think they have “got it,” who never do this at all; who never clear away thoroughly the old rubbish in their lives, plant the ladder securely, and begin with the first round to climb along the slow and tedious and upward way. They got something which is called a “conviction;” they feel that something must be done; and so, without pause or self-scrutiny or accurate purpose, begin upon themselves a series of spasmodic experiments, – a little this, and a little that, and the other, – very desultory, very aimless, very worthless. No long time ensues before they are thrown back in their way, discouraged, give it all up. It is of no use for them to try. Either there is no such thing as spirituality, or it is too high, they cannot attain unto it. Where is the difficulty? Not in spirituality, that is the sure thing; not in human nature, not in individual nature. What these need, is man’s great help to God.
The difficulty is, that no proper beginning, at the beginning, has been made. You have seen boys at play spring up and catch at some round in a ladder above their heads, and swing there for a while, and then, from inability to go higher or remain where they were, drop off, back to just the place from which they started; while one began at the foot and went up the right way, regularly, step by step, – though he was behind in the outset, though he must go creeping at a pace the other despised, – yet quietly and safely and easily has reached the top. It is so with the spirituality of many. It consists in a series of violent leaps to reach that which is above them, for which they have made no manner of preparation. They cannot hold where they are. They have nothing on which to stand. They must fall after a little, and be just where they were, with exhausted energies, depressed spirits, and a corresponding unwillingness to renew the trial.
It is astonishing how many really earnest persons omit this matter of beginning, and how slow they are to see its necessity, or to recognize in the neglect the cause of failure, when the very first question they would ask a mechanic whom they saw bungling in his work would be if he knew about first principles, if he had ever begun his trade. Thorough, systematic training in the elements, down among the roots, is the secret to success in every calling; and without it, failure. Beginnings secure endings. The spiritual life is no exception. It is amenable to universal law.
There may be various causes exciting one to a better life. They will be different in different persons. It may be fear of the consequence of sin; it may be love to the Father; it may be admiration of the Son; it may be one; it may be several things combined. They are not the beginning. They give the point at which to place the ladder: they are not the ladder. They give the place from which to start: they do not give the spirit in which to start. I think that, as the first act of the awakening Jacob was to consecrate ourselves, so that our hearts may become Bethel, the house of God. This is beginning at the beginning; a conscious, hearty, unreserved surrender to the self, and the setting it apart to the service of God.
Sure of the first round, and the foot firmly planted on it, the active work begins. Self-consecration is the inward act; but the beginning is not established until this is supplemented by actual endeavor. You must not merely find, and put your foot on, the first round, but make it the support of the next step. You cannot stay there. You cannot step back. You must go forward, – do something to prove the life of your inward act. The way is narrow, and it is up. It is climbing along a heavenly way in which we must go, – a way which has no short cuts, a way Christ was forced to go, the only truly royal way. The step must be taken cautiously. Have you not seen a laborer, with his burden upon his back, pause, ere he started on his tedious way, rightly to poise his load; then, with firm grasp, holding to one round after another, as he slowly drew himself up, every now and then pausing to be sure of his position and his hold, never periling life and limb by rash haste, by overstepping the regular, appointed bound? Just such wise caution needs the Christian laborer, – to be sure of his first step, and then to be willing to go on from that slowly, regularly advance trusting in the end to reach that bright place whose effulgence, shed from the open above upon every ascending round, is the guide and cheering of the way.
Just what the next step will be shall depend upon individual condition, temperament, want; and must be decided by one’s special knowledge of himself. Spirituality is not a cast or mold into whose fixed angles and proportions you must run your spirit; but Spirituality is plastic and pliant, now finishing a Paul, and now a John, according to native endowment. Also Paul was made a Christian one way, and John another; each wholly unlike the other, but each Christian. The same process could not fit both. So with us all: the special steps and the special sequence must be our individual selection, according to individual need. And this demands some knowledge of one’s self, too often the last thing one has any knowledge of.
Our poet Longfellow has written a striking poem upon the idea of St. Augustine, that we may frame a ladder for our heavenly ascent out of the evil deeds we have repented of. Do you know it? If not get it and read it. The thought is valuable just here. The start of many is encumbered and delayed by the memory of shortcomings and sins, which, though heartily repented of, cast a threatening shadow from behind upon the work before. Now, a repented sin may sometimes be the best help we can have, give us the next lift. Our very follies and sins, truly repented of, wisely used become means of spiritual progress, rounds in the ladder of heavenly ascent. Every one must feel, that his past outgrown, repented sins are not mere curses, clogs, but that they give a certain ease, a certain capacity of rising; that upon their ruins he has made his first sure step toward heaven. It is not worth while to sin in order to secure that aid, for there is another excellent way; but having sinned, that aid comes, an angel of cheering, born out of darkness.
Life is not merely a narrow, but it is an upward way. It is climbing a ladder whose foot is on earth, whose top pierces the sky. From that opening above streams a divine light; and out of it comes the voice of God, speaking to our slumbering ear; rousing us to the great truth, that however desolate, however hard our lot, however dark the night, however cheerless and solitary the way, surely God is with us. Let us awake, arise, consecrate ourselves, and go on our way; putting beneath us the vanities, the weaknesses, and the sins of the past, piling one upon another those remnants of a sinful life, – slowly, step by step, round by round, lifting ourselves out of all unworthiness, standing on what too long we bore,” – till, rising on past wrecks, we shall have reached the point from which we may begin to climb along the ascent of actual virtues. The way is clear, then. It is long, it is weary, it is narrow, it is steep; but it is the only way. No man need miss it. It is like the patriarch’s ladder set up on the earth in darkness; but its top reaches to heaven, and there is light!