WHEN MAN LISTENS
by Cecil Rose
The most striking characteristic of the ordinary man to-day is his helplessness.
He is the bewildered spectator of events over which he has apparently no control, but which affect him profoundly. A troubled rumour spreads through the markets of the world, and he finds the value of his savings halved or his employment gone. He watches the drift of political policy that he knows may land him and his family into the unspeakable horrors of another war, and he sees nothing that he can do about it. When he does try to do something and goes to the poll to vote into office a new government, he reaps results that bear little relation to the promises of the election platform. He joins a Peace organization, but when the echoes of the speeches he hears at its demonstrations die away, he can hear louder than ever the noise of the forge and factory where the nations are making the weapons of new warfare.
He does not, of course, live with his helplessness all the time. He could not bear it. He must escape, and does so in different ways. It may be into forgetfulness–the forgetfulness either of self-centred pleasure or of self-centred piety. A man can shut out the world and its urgency at a cinema or a dance. He can leave it out of count while he seeks his individual salvation.
On the other hand, he may escape from the sense of helplessness into some form of practical social service. He may bestir himself to do something, without having any very clear sense of direction or any great confidence that what he is doing will prove effective. But it relieves him to be in action.
This is the simple truth about millions of ordinary men and women all over the world. Whether they are contriving to forget about it most of the time, or to reassure themselves by activity, the background of their life is the sense of frustration and impotence. If they are sustained by any hope, it is the vague hope–so near to despair–that something will happen somehow, or that someone else will do something about it. In any case, whatever is going to happen does not seem to have any real connexion with anything that they as individuals can do.
This is the paralysis that grips the world. It has also gripped the one body of men and women who should have the answer to paralysis-the Christian Church. So few people are left with any strong and impelling faith that their individual lives and actions have significance beyond themselves, and can avail in the bringing of a new and liberated world. The task of changing the world appears so gigantic and so remote that it daunts any attempt to make a personal contribution towards it. Unless we can demonstrate to men and women that there is a real way of remaking the world, and that they can become effective partners in it, they will remain the helpless spectators of the drift to destruction. The sheer weight of their inaction will quicken its pace.
What is the basis of the Christian hope of a new world? What part have I in its making?
The hope of a new world, which men and women of the pre-war generation entertained, was based either on a general faith in the inevitability of progress-a faith born in a partial understanding of the scientific doctrine of evolution; or on their confidence in the inventive genius and organizing capacity of man. Both foundations have given way.
The Christian hope of a new world has nothing in common with these exploded beliefs. The only way by which a new human society can come into being is by the action of God. As He created the world, so He can re-create it when men give Him the chance by their obedience.
When man obeys, God works.
We should lock up in an asylum a man who attempted to make a field of wheat by assembling thousands of stalks and leaves, planting them out laboriously, and sticking each grain on with gum. A waving field of corn is a miracle of life. It is the miracle which happens when man learns to do his part of simple obedience to the laws of growth, and ploughs the soil and scatters the seed. The difference is as great between man’s attempt to reorganize society and God’s recreation of it.
Two years ago the people of Norway were facing anxious social and moral problems, and attempting to deal with them along the lines of legislation. The attempt was not proving notably successful. Some time previously a woman over seventy years old, faced, in China, the call of God to go and live in Geneva. She obeyed. As a result the President of the Norwegian Parliament, visiting Geneva, met the challenge to put life under the guidance of God. Later he invited thirty men and women to visit Norway, and bring the same message of God-guided living. In six months the principal papers of the country and many leaders of its life were bearing witness to a change in the mental outlook of its people. A general strike which had been pending did not take place. A remarkable change in the atmosphere of Parliament was noticed at the beginning of the next session. A celebrated journalist apologized to Denmark for his bitter article on the fisheries dispute, and opened the way to a new understanding between the two nations. The President of the Authors’ Club wrote a new kind of play, which brought dramatic art into the service of national regeneration. It drew very large audiences.
These are swift and partial glimpses at the rebirth of a nation. Politics, social life, morals, and culture can be reborn when the creative power of God is released by the obedience of one person.
Something happens. When man obeys, God works.
The new civilization which will replace our fast perishing social structure will be a miracle of God’s creative power working through men and women surrendered to His will. That is the basis of our hope–‘a city whose builder and maker is God.’
This means that my relation as an individual to the world-task becomes totally different. I am not one utterly insignificant builder amongst countless hosts, adding one brick to the gigantic structure of a new world-order which, at that rate, will take inconceivably long to complete. If such were the case, it would seem hardly worth while to bother with my brick in a world of such immediate urgency. Rather, my obedience to God can be like the closing of a switch which allows the current of His power to flow through a whole circuit of lives, blow up a mass of evil, weld together in new relationship two lives or a community, or set in motion far-reaching changes in men, in industry, in education, or any other area of human activity. My part as an ordinary man in the task of world reconstruction can thus be immediate and vital.
The effect of my unreserved obedience to the guidance of God cannot be calculated by any human arithmetic, either in its extent or its speed. A new factor has been introduced into the situation which completely alters it. God is in action.
What happens when men begin to seek and obey the guidance of God is not just an improvement in the present situation. God is not content to settle our strikes, resolve our family disputes, ease the tension of an international situation, restore equilibrium, and send us back to live more peaceably and comfortably a life on the old man-made lines. That is the extent of many people’s ambition. It is not the extent of God’s.
When men obey Him a revolution begins which will eventually change the whole structure of human society. When Philemon, obeying God, received back his runaway slave, Onesimus, as a brother, he did not merely re-establish his domestic equilibrium and resolve the difficulties caused for his wife by a reduced staff: he started a social revolution. He did the thing which struck at the very foundations of the society in which he lived, based as it was on domestic slavery. And before many years were gone the system was changed, and an area of human life was reorganized.
The Christian hope of a new world only differs from the other revolutionary programmes which are being urged upon us to-day in two respects: It goes further; and its method is entirely different. The changes in human society which a living Christianity will bring about will make Communism and Fascism look pale and anemic. An employer of labour a few years ago put his business wholly under God’s direction. Recently a Labour leader wrote of him: ‘He has done more, voluntarily, for his employees than any revolutionary Government would force him to do.’
The method of the Christian revolution is simple, unreserved obedience to God.
The head of an oil-refining firm, called to a conference on the testing of quality in oils, felt that in order to secure the most effective tests in the public interest he should reveal to his trade-rivals the carefully guarded secrets of manufacture by which he had built up his business. He did so: and at the same moment struck a blow at the foundations of the competitive system as we know it.
One of the representatives of Great Britain at the Washington Conference in 1922, after leaving the Conference temporarily to carry out official duties in Canada, felt guided to return to Washington and look into the matter of ‘a clause in the Pacific Treaty. He arrived just in time to give the necessary help in producing the final draft of a clause which has worked out satisfactorily ever since. He introduced into world politics a principle which will eventually destroy the old diplomacy, and replace international bargaining by God’s control of world affairs.
Those who know the industrial North will realize how the protracted efforts to reorganize the cotton industry have been slowed again and again by the difficulty in getting all parties to suit their own interests and points of view. Earlier this year in Denmark, nine textile manufacturers sought together in quiet and prayer God’s scheme of reorganization for their industry. They began a revolution in industrial affairs.
A departmental manager of a large industrial concern in the North of England began to listen to God. A dispute between himself and the employees in his department threatened to end in a strike. He considered the question in the new light of God’s Plan, and listened to God’s guidance. A possible solution came to his mind. He suggested it to the men, who welcomed it. ‘We have never reached an agreement so quickly before, in fifteen years of negotiation,’ said the men’s representative, a prominent Trade Union leader. A revolution in the relationships of employer and employee had begun.
When men do such things anything can happen, because God comes in. And the only alternative to violent revolution which will shatter the structure of a society that fails to supply the human needs, or respect the human rights of so many of its members, is a Divine re-creation of society which outdoes in thoroughness and outpaces in speed anything which violence can achieve. Such a revolution begins in the personal revolution of surrendering the whole of life and all its business to God’s control.
Why, it may be asked, has Christianity so far failed in our generation to produce this revolution in society, and has consequently left the field open for revolution by violence?
Our obedience has not gone far enough, either in extent or cost.
Too often, men and women have come into an initial experience of God which has liberated them from their more obvious sins, but has left them tied still to their social environment and to their own unrecognized sins. They have taken part of their new life from their new Lord, but have continued to draw heavily on the conventional ideas and standards of their social or business world in the ordering of their conduct. They have renounced, it may be, sins of the flesh and the habits about which they were already uneasy in conscience, but have continued under the domination of their fears, their desire for security, their love of comfort, and their selfish independence of others. They did let God over their front doorstep, but kept Him standing in the vestibule.
Christian revolution begins when a man is really willing for God to displace everything but Himself from a share in the control of life–tradition, accepted social and business standards, preconceived ideas, human ties which hinder us, our fears, our comfort, and everything else which has in the past dictated our actions. A business girl secures a change in the wages and working conditions of the rest of the staff, because she is no longer afraid to lose her job by stating the employees’ case. A Dutch manufacturer invents a new form of incendiary bomb, for which he is offered a large sum of money. After meeting the Oxford Group at a house party in Switzerland, he is guided to destroy the formula. Though in great need of money, he obeys. Another man, retired and looking forward to more leisured days, sees that God needs his leisure. He sells his home, so that he may be free to go anywhere and do anything under God’s orders. These are the men and women who start a revolution, because they are free from all ties except the will of God.
I have tried in previous chapters to sketch the outline of that thoroughgoing Christian life surrendered, guided, shared and used by God–to which we are called. Nothing less will release the power of God into the life of our day. God needs men who are liberated from every other control but His.
We have hesitated at the cost. Revolutionary living means living out to-day the principles of the new world of to-morrow. We shall not wait for systems to be changed but shall let God take our life and hurl it at the fortifications of selfishness and wrong-this has always been costly. It is not simply that it is painful and difficult to us. It may involve deeply those we love-and there so many of us have stopped short. The lost employment or diminishing business which means privation for them, the call to go ahead when they do not understand, and when God’s way to the healing of a world seems to begin with wounds at home-these are the prices which are so hard to pay. They may have to be paid. God’s way of life again and again turns out far better than our fears. It works in ways we never thought possible. But there are times when the conflict between a God-guided life and the present world means a cross, and someone broken and bleeding on it in obedience to a crucified Lord.
In the chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews which speaks with confidence of the city whose builder and maker is God, there is also written the record of those who ‘were stoned, sawn in two, and cut to pieces; they had to roam about in sheepskins and goatskins, forlorn, oppressed, ill-treated.’ No man, called to fight for his country, regards it as a ground for refusing, that his wife may be widowed, his children orphaned, his business ruined. Nor does he consider their pleas the deciding authority. We are contending for far more than our country’s victory.
In the end our own family life is lifted to a finer level and our children fired with a greater vision of God’s purpose when we recognize and obey a claim higher than the claim of their comfort and safety.
We are not living any longer in that comfortable world of illusion, cushioned by prosperity, which made such talk of cost seem remote and unreal. Revolution knocks at the door. The Cross in our lives is the only answer to the sickle and the hammer.
There is one other difference between our human attempts to reorganize society and God’s way of re-creating it.
We can only reorganize as far as we can see. We have to wait until our slow human understanding has mastered some of the complex problems with which we are dealing. The process is too slow, too cautious and too uncertain, in a world where the forces of destruction can move so swiftly. We cannot afford to postpone action until our human eyes can see the shape of things to come. Yet there is nothing else for us to do, if human wisdom is all we have on which to rely.
Fortunately it is not. The plan of the new world is clear in the mind of God; and the immediate steps of our own obedience can become clear to us, if we will listen to God. If we have to go out `not knowing whither’–unable to see how our obedience will work out–that is only the venture of faith which is inherent in Christian living. We shall see the shape of things to come as they actually take shape around the lives of surrendered men and women.
Our hope is in God’s action. That hope is quickened by the fact that there is across the world to-day a growing army of men and women who are proving in their own lives that—
When man listens, God speaks;
When man obeys God works.