THE VICTORIOUS LIFE
W. B. RILEY, A.M., D.D,,
First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.
Author of: “Youth’s Victory Lies This Way,” “Pastoral Problems” “The Only Hope of Church or World,” “Is Jesus Coming Again?” etc.
“But thanks be to God, which us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – I Cor. 15:57.
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”
– Prov. 16:32.
Recently there drifted to me the criticism – “Our Pastor does not preach practical sermons that tell one how to live the victorious life.”
That criticism may be more just than the minister has imagined. He has proceeded upon the assumption that a whole Bible provided adequately for a whole life, and, in the last dozen years, has gone from Genesis to Revelation in expository work and evangelistic appeal.
However, there are points of human experience that demand special emphasis, and justify specific treatment. In thinking upon some of these, we decided to undertake a series of four sermons on the general subject of the victorious life: 1 – Victory Over One’s Temper: 2 – Victory Against the Tongue: 3 – Victory Over Trouble: 4 – Victory Against Temptation.
It is true, of course, that the fourth subject is sufficiently broad to cover all the others; but a single address would not suffice, and when one has considered “temper,” “tongue” and “troubles,” there still remains a plenty to be said on victory against temptation.
That the text here selected relates directly to our theme is demonstrated by a study of the context. “A froward man soweth strife” and “A violent man enticeth his neighbor.” These two sentences are sufficiently suggestive and lend meaning to the Scripture selected for emphasis: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city”
There are three suggestions that I want to develop in this text: Self-control Exceeds Strength: Self-control Surpasses Success: Self-control is with the Spirit.
SELF-CONTROL EXCEEDS STRENGTH
“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty.”
Self-control is a virtue of rare value. For the time, at least, I want to employ this compound word, “self-control,” as a synonym for mastery of one’s temper. Society today is stricken at a thousand points; in fact, the more thoughtful men of the century are debating the question as to whether society can, or will, continue. The socially disorganizing forces are on the increase, and H. G. Wells, yesterday the prophet of progress, today is the prophet of pessimism.
Among those disintegrating forces divorce looms large; and in the courts the ground of divorce is seldom on the lone prescription of Scripture. In nine cases out of ten it is asked because of “ill-treatment,” or “incompatibility of temper,” which, in reality, are one. To find two people who can go on week after week and year after year without a fight, either verbal or fistic or both, is now a rare discovery. Why? Temper. Anger is eloquent; its words blister, they bum, they destroy.
Once in a while, a young couple will tell you that “a quarrel is almost a desirable thing; since it is so sweet when we make up”; but those who are older, and who, either by experience or observation, have learned life’s real lessons, know that quarrels, oft-repeated, kill affection, and the consequence is Reno – if there is any money in the family – or the local court if the purse is empty or the parties are non-prominent.
We are glad that this new law against quoting anything that an author has said was not passed any sooner. We can still quote from the fathers without fear of a criminal suit, and old Jeremy Taylor said, “Angry passion is a fire, and angry words like breath to fan them together. They are like steel and flint, sending out fire by mutual collision.”
The New Testament teaching is “Be angry, and sin not but few folks are able to do it. Not a few wives and husbands are like the bee – the moment you touch it, it responds with a sting; but they forget that in the bee’s case, the sting, while it hurts its victim, effects the death of the bee itself. So with temper, the person using it suffers most.
Self-control, therefore, is self-advantage; and the lack of it is an incalculable loss. That is why Solomon could say, “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty.”
Self-control is popularly appreciated. People hold in esteem the people who control themselves; and people lose respect for the man when they find that he has lost the power to control himself. Every now and then one gives vent to an explosion of temper, and with red face and violent language indulges a tirade. Later he may return with an apology, taking the easier way of saying, “I have a rotten temper and it explodes sometimes; but with me it is soon over,” which is an attempted justification, or at least a condoning of the matter.
Sam Jones, or Billy Sunday – I have forgotten which – once said, “That explanation is hardly satisfactory. The explosion of a shotgun is soon over also, but people may be dead as a result.”
Henry Ward Beecher, in speaking of anger, said that you cannot take back the injuries that that explosion produces. It makes little difference how warm the following morning is, a sharp frost, the night before, leaves the heliotropes incapable of recovery. So. some people’s temper expresses itself in hot words that are like the blaze from a shotgun; and other people’s temper expresses itself in frigidity that leaves the blossoming beauty blackened, dead – a noisome heap.
These things account for the fact that self-control is popularly appreciated. No man likes to stand before the mouth of a discharging shotgun; and no heliotrope likes to feel the breath of a killing frost.
We are a dull lot; we learn our lessons slowly. There isn’t a man or a woman of us who ever lost temper, turned loose his or her tongue, without realizing their loss, and therefore their mistake. Some weeks ago, when the seniors spent an evening in my home, among the games played was one in which all the men were put out of the room, and were readmitted through the door, one at a time, and were told to pick out the lady of their preference and humbly bow before her and say, “Darling, what have I done?”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than the reply came back from the smiling Miss, “You have made a fool of yourself!”
That is exactly the way the man who has displayed his temper feels; and yet some folks soon forget, and, on the slightest provocation, repeat the performance.
Self-control is in itself a power. Solomon says, “greater than the mighty.” The one who is master at this point finds his direst enemy falling before his face. You remember the night in which Jesus was betrayed. “As soon then as He had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
The self-possession of that Man utterly upset the whole crowd and sent them staggering to the earth. So self-control discomfits and defeats the enemies of man.
“I saw an angel with majestic mien
And radiant brow, and smile divinely sweet;
Strong human passions writhed beneath his feet;
There too expired those coward faults which screen Themselves behind Inheritance, and lean
On dead men for their strength, and think it meet.
All, all lay prostrate, owning their defeat,
Then, to the spirit with the eyes serene
I cried aloud in wonder and in awe;
‘Oh, mighty one, who art thou, that thy glance
Can circumvent heredity, cheat chance,
Arid conquer nature? What thine occult law?
Art thou incarnate Force – the Over-Soul?’
The Angel answered, ‘I am Self-Control.’ ”
But Solomon has a second remark to make upon this subject:
SELF-CONTROL SURPASSES SUCCESS
“He that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city.”
At the time that was spoken, war was the principal occupation of man and conquest was regarded as among the greatest of accomplishments. No man was held in such high esteem as a General who went forth conquering and to conquer. Hence the figure; and to a degree, that figure is pertinent still! Self-control voices a real victory.
It is claimed that that was the secret of Socrates’ life and fame. When, on one occasion, one of his servants greatly tried him, he remarked, “I would beat you if I were not angry.” On that basis many a child, and quite often a wife, would escape inconsiderate blows.
On another occasion, someone boxed Socrates’ ears, and he smilingly remarked: “It is a pity we do not know when to put on a helmet.”
When a gentleman of rank refused to return Socrates’ salute in the street, certain of the philosopher’s friends were exasperated at the man’s incivility, and told Socrates he should resent it. To this the philosopher answered, “If you met a person in the road worse dressed than yourself, you would hardly be enraged on that account; pray, then, why be mad at him for having worse manners than your own?”
It is told that in a Japanese temple there is a wooden frame filled with nails. When tourists ask the meaning of this frame and these nails, they are informed that when a Japanese gets mad with someone, instead of inflicting bodily harm upon him, he hires a priest to go and drive a nail for him, and while waiting for the priest to fulfil the task the man’s temper is relieved.
That reminds me strikingly of Miss Emma Chamberlain, a former and honored member of my church. When articles appeared in Baptist papers that excited her just wrath, she used to sit down and write a scorching article upon the subject, and putting it into an envelope, address it to the Editor involved; but she never stamped it or permitted it to go to the office. She said, “Writing it suffices as an escape valve for my heated thoughts.” Such practices would profit many if employed.
But there is a further suggestion on this subject:
Self-control fits one for command. Men and women, yea, even children, are not accustomed to take seriously the orders of one who cannot or does not order himself first of all.
You remember that Charles Kingsley, in Hypatia, describes Raphael Aben-Ezra, the man whose word was law, whose slaves obeyed him without a moment’s hesitation, and who walked among his fellows without apparent fear, and who, facing Philammon, as that young monk tried to pass him by in contempt, said:
“Allow me, Sir; I lead the way! This dagger is poisoned – a scratch and you are dead. This dog” – referring to a great mastiff – “is of the true British breed; if she seizes you, red- hot iron will not loose her till she hears the bone crack. If any one will change clothes with me, all I have is at your service. If not, the first that stirs is a dead man.”
And Kingsley says: “There was no mistaking the quiet, high-bred determination of the speaker. Had he raged and blustered, Philammon could have met him on his own ground; but there was an easy, self-possessed air about him, which admitted of no opposition.”
That is true in the common walks of life; the man who commands his fellows is the one who commands himself.
Go back into history, and there you will read of great generals who knew nothing of the experience of self-mastery; and, without exception, they finally failed. But those who did know it – men like Grant – overcame every difficulty, conquered every opponent.
However, the treatment of this text is not complete without an interpretation of the verse following: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”
SUPREME CONTROL IS NOT WITH SELF
A man, by reason and will, may so far master himself at some points as to command the respect, even the obedience of others. Grant did. But without God man is set for final failure. We are told that Alexander wept because there were no more worlds to conquer; and yet we know that the fate of Alexander was to fall before an inconsequential opponent, a despicable enemy. Such also was Grant’s fate.
Having been brought up in Kentucky and having spent the early part of my life in raising tobacco, I have never been able to join the company of those who think you are on the way to hell if you use it; but that little enemy – a cigar – sent Grant to his grave. At the very point where we are strongest it is easily possible for us to be weak, paradoxical as that sounds. A man’s control of his spirit may lead him to suppose that he can admit enemies and say to them, “Thus far, and no further!”
That is the philosophy of the whole “temperance” doctrine. As one put it, “I haven’t much respect for a man who cannot take a drink when he wills, and when he wills let drink alone.”
But the very fellow that made that remark to me in my seventeenth year, filled a drunkard’s grave. He thought he could control himself; but discovered, too late, that what he had supposed was his servant, became not only his master, but his murderer as well.
Life at best is a lottery. That is what Solomon was saying: “The lot is cast into the lap.” No man can say in advance what its final outcome will be. There is a poem,“Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, that is very popular with a certain class. It contains this phrase: “I am the master of my fate,” but it involves a false and dangerous philosophy.
We have all, at some time or other, participated in the game called “Blind Man’s Buff,” which is supposed to be for the diversion of children; yet adults are often engaged in it. John Foster tells of an ingenious author who figured the human soul as a Shepherdess at play with Worldly-Wisdom, Fame and Pleasure. She suffered her playmates to bind her eyes in sport, ignorant of the fact that those playmates were in league with Satan, who slips from the woods and catches her and carries her away in his own arms. An allegory in which men playing about the world and pleased with the associations of the same, fall unconsciously into the snares of the Adversary.
That is why Solomon sought to impress us with the fact that only God could make a righteous disposition of life; man was not equal to it; woman was not capable of that accomplishment. How foolish, then, to trust to our own wisdom, to have confidence in the magnitude of our own wills; or to rely wholly upon good resolutions, or unaided reason.
Sam Jones, the great Southern evangelist, was more than a sensationalist, he was a minister of truth and often said the most sensible things, and sometimes soared in almost unequaled eloquence. Speaking one day of our endeavor to get on without God, he said: “Don’t forget that sin has put man out of harmony with his Maker,” and then he illustrated his point:
“Let a well trained musician sit down at the piano,” he said. “He sweeps the board with his fingers for a time or two; then a frown gathers on his face, and I ask him, ‘What is the matter?’ He answers, ‘Two of those keys are out of harmony.’ I tell him to close up the piano and tell it to put itself right. ‘But the piano can’t do it,’ he answers. I ask, ‘Who can?’ ‘The man who made it; or the man who knows it perfectly,’ he replies.”
It is equally so of life. God created it, but by sin it is out of harmony with Him. Only His own hand can set us right again, to such an extent that the Ten Commandments make music to our souls, and every Christian duty becomes a song. God only can touch the chords of nature and make them to vibrate harmoniously again.
We conclude as we began: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city. The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.”