From Sermons by
Hugh Ross Mackintosh (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1938).
THE BURDEN-BEARING LORD
" Cast thy burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain thee."—Psalms 55:22
IT sounds like an exulting echo to this verse, when, in a later Psalm—the 68th—we find the words: "Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden." That is what the Revisers have rightly substituted for the older, more familiar: "Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits." It is not altogether pleasant to abandon the earlier translation; yet I think there is so much of the Gospel in the new form, as well as so much tender human feeling that most of us will hail it as a welcome addition to Bible characterisations of God—"the Lord, who daily bears our burden." It proclaims that God is a Saviour not for the great crises of life merely, but for the everyday stretch of tasks and cares. That is a Redeemership for humble paths, for dark hours. A father and his boy, swing down the glen road together, the lad keen to carry his share of the baggage; but in half an hour, as the young step begins to flag, the strong arm of the other reaches over, lifts the load from the stooping shoulders, and lays it on his own. Some picture like that is in the Psalmist's thought of God. It is the way He takes with men who give Him an opening—this way of burden-bearing love, mindful, sympathetic, all-sufficient. What we could not carry for ourselves He carries for us, from one day to the next. "Casting all your care upon Him," St. Peter says, " because He cares for you."
In learned books now and then we are told that the Old Testament has no gospel for the individual. God is the Father of the Hebrew nation as a totality, not of the single life. That is misleading, if you take it as more than a suggestive exaggeration. It fits very badly the experience of Divine fellowship to which men like Moses or Jeremiah attained; it fits very badly, we must all feel, with the meaning of the 23rd Psalm. " The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want "; doesn't the directness with which that goes to our heart prove that it came right out of the heart of some one else—some one as harassed and frail and finite as ourselves? No; heaven is nearer earth, unquestionably, in the New Testament than in the Old; and yet even in the Old, believing men could look up and say: "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him." Here then is one reason why the Bible calls God Father —nothing half so fatherly could be thought of as this daily vicarious bearing of our loads; nor could there be anything more childlike than casting our loads, habitually, on that great strength. The youngest understands what is meant by getting our burdens carried for us, and the oldest is always learning better how to give the appeal more rich, more concrete applications.
Let us look at this text, so simple to apprehend, so hard to obey, so satisfying when obeyed—a text that strikes tender and resounding chords: "Cast thy burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain thee."
It scarcely needs saying that the unburdened lives are very few. We are all here with our own loads; and if we are middle-aged, we have probably become aware that these loads tend sadly to increase as we grow older and responsibilities thicken. At times they are more substantial and palpable—wasting sickness, bereavement, haunting troubles about money; in other cases they represent an accumulation of trifles, each insignificant by itself, but crushing when massed together. The load of daily duty may be all but unbearable, if our work is tedious. Worst of all are the burdens of which we cannot speak, whose unrelieved weight and shadow make the heart sick. Our friend's sin or shame, fear of dangers for our children, doubts perhaps about God or a future life, remorse for irreparable wrong-doing—we cannot talk of them even in a whisper; a single word might ruin the happiness of other people. Rich and poor meet at this point; they are burdened, both of them; only the size and shape of their loads differ. Indeed, those who seem to the bystander most exempt from care quite often have their private special cross, their hidden secret, some trouble, some disappointment, which God alone sees and understands; as the King of Israel, when he rent his clothes, was seen to have sackcloth next his skin. "The heart knoweth its own bitterness." Burdened men, as you know, are sometimes told truly enough that their burdens are for the most part imaginary because due really to the poor state of their health; but to this, most likely, they have no reply to make except that in that case they can afford neither money nor time to get their health improved, and that if relief cannot be had otherwise, they must bow the head and bear it as they can.
I want to speak about three of the commonest burdens that weigh men down, and to look at them, and our duty regarding them, in the light of the Psalmist's message. We shall keep very near home, and our topics will be familiar.
1. The burden of sin. That is the greatest of all, and so we take it at the start. Any man who knows what sin means, for the conscience the imagination, the memory, will tell you that if only this load were lifted off, he could almost bear the rest without a murmur. Nothing takes the spring out of life like indulgence in known sin; nothing so destroys the romance and elasticity of life, nothing embitters the outlook, or makes recollection painfuller, or so saps our power to help others. I am not now speaking of gross or criminal acts that violate the law. But if ever, for five minutes, you have stood before Jesus Christ, and felt His eyes upon you, searching you and making you ashamed, then you know how heavy sin can be, and I could make it no plainer though I talked for hours. Bring a magnet close to a heap of steel filings, and instantly they set to trembling and quivering as though alive; and bring a mortal man consciously before the Son of God, and the weight of super-incumbent moral responsibility bears him down, not perhaps in penitence, but at least in involuntary acknowledgment. Up to that moment of exposure and revelation we stood with head erect; but now we are bowed down, and ponderous pressures, of which in our shallow self-ignorance we took no heed, come home with suffocating gravity. Some of you know that, and the others who do not, will know it better, if God is kind, in the days that are before them.
This burden is to be cast upon the Lord. That is the one right thing to do with it—to give it over, with shame, with faith, with relief, with gratitude, with joy, to God our Father. We cannot deal with it ourselves; as well expect to forgive our own sins as look directly into our own eyes, for a man can no more absolve himself than he can shake hands with himself. The wrong things we have done, the soiled and broken characters we have made of ourselves, are now beyond our power to cleanse or remove. And it is at this point the Gospel interposes, with its bugle-note of hope, giving us not good advice but good news, declaring that the load we have to bear, and yet cannot bear, God will lift away. On the Cross, in Jesus Christ who died there, the love of God is seen bearing our sin and putting it away by the sacrifice of Himself. That has been the wonder of His people ever since. Jesus can turn to us, with all our failure on our head, and say: "The reproaches of them that reproach thee are fallen upon Me." What else crushed Him in Gethsemane and pressed out of Him the fainting sweat of blood? What bowed Him in weakness as He climbed up the hill of death? What weighed on His mighty heart till it broke in the cry," My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" It was the inward realisation of the sins of men, the atoning sympathy of a Saviour. And what a refutation the whole story of the Passion is of the facile theory, often promulgated, that forgiveness is an obvious thing, that comes lightly. Do you think this world is a place where wrong-doing is easily forgiven? And does Calvary look as if pardon could be accomplished cheaply—as if it cost nothing but an easy word? No; that smiling, sunny gospel will not bear being confronted with the Crucifixion, in which the awful majesty of righteousness is revealed, and Christ gave the final proof that forgiveness comes, always, through pain. If you want to know, with a knowledge burnt into the soul, what is the hideousness of sin and the irreconcilable antagonism that wars between God and wrong—aye, and the lengths to which Eternal Love will go to reach and win the guilty, then take your place before the Cross, and let what you see there sink down into your heart.
That, brethren, is the Gospel in its wonder; it is the message of what, in His Son, God suffered for our iniquity, so that, even if the thing be too amazing for explanation, the burden of sin is not an iron fate. You know it all. Once, in early days, as Tennyson came back to his lodgings after a long walk, he said on entering: "Well, mistress, what's the news Indeed, Mr. Tennyson," said the old Methodist landlady, "I have no news except that Jesus died for sinners." "Well," he answered," that's old news, and new news, and good news." From your first days, very likely, you have known this story of a sin-bearing Christ that cleanses the conscience and the heart. What has it done for you? Are you still carrying that burden of sin through the world, or have you cast it on the strength of God? Can you say the doxology Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood"? That insight teaches the new song. How do we read in the Pilgrim's Progress? "I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more. Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart, 'He path given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.'"
2. Again, there is the burden of grief. Here we are reading a different chapter of life's book. Here is the record of hearts withered by sorrow, of hopes blighted and purposes overthrown, of the sense of bereavement and surviving loneliness that sometimes may even bring the middle-aged to say, "All, all are gone, the old familiar faces." As we advance in life, sometimes it feels as if our way-marks had ceased to be milestones, and become gravestones. Often, too, the load of grief has this added pain, that it is undeserved. "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents," yet he is born blind. The mysterious woes of the innocent, the wrongs of the defenceless, all the harsh chords in the "still sad music of humanity "—we think of them, and, as we do so, we remember how often they have seemed to justify the triumphing of a godless creed.
Now, on that matter of the connection of sorrow with scepticism, there is just one thing I should like to say. And I put it to you whether it is not true. Very frequently the scepticism produced by pain is in the mind of the spectator, not the sufferer. Every friendly Christian man knows that. You go out to see one on whom a great grief has fallen, and, as you ring the bell, you wonder what consolation there is to give. The loss looks irreparable; how could a loving God permit it to happen? Then the door opens; and when you enter, it is to find—what? You who know will bear me out when I say that the sufferers, often, are more calm, more serene, more believing than you are. Instead of your comforting them, it is almost the other way round. And if they ever let you know the reason, it is simply this, that, along with the grief, God has sent such a wonderful impression of His love, has so touched the load with His hand to ease its bitterness, that their trust never falters, and they can smile bravely through the tears.
Elsewhere, I know, it is different. It is always different when we refuse to share the burden with God. Many will insist on carrying every ounce by themselves. It can be done, of course; it has been done a thousand times. The modern Stoics, like their ancient namesakes, will bear all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" without a murmur or a cry. When we watch such people, who bite the lip till blood comes rather than betray the pain, who confide in no seen friend and in an Unseen Friend still less, it is impossible to deny, even if we would, their strong iron self-control. And yet, in its proud, cold abhorrence of emotion, it is an attitude that lacks utterly the Christian stamp. It is totally unlike the Lord Jesus Christ. He was no Stoic, or would He have asked the question: "Could ye not watch with Me one hour?" He was no Stoic, or could He have wept at Lazarus' grave? Not so; sorrow felt, sorrow confessed, sorrow accepted, sorrow yielded to, is part of God's plan for all His children, and the hard resolve to bear our own load without acknowledgment, without expression, has in it at last something which is only half human. The man who never seeks sympathy for himself will soon lose the power to give it to his neighbour.
This burden of grief also we must commit to God. He knows what is best to do with it. See how that strain of feeling for the sad runs all through Jesus' life. After watching Him for a whole day among the sick and poor, the Evangelist Matthew sums it all up in the words, "He bore our sicknesses and carried our sorrows." Sympathy and power are the qualities of God in Christ. Therefore, if He counts it best, best for His kingdom in your heart, He who weighs the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance can lightly lift away the load you feel so weary; but if that would do you an injury, He will let it be, but on to the very end He will bear it along with you. Only, if His aid is to be your strength, you must seek it. "God and His love are to be had for the asking, but they must be asked." Therefore the wisest thing of all is to make confiding in God a habit; for, just as you can pay a man no honour like showing that you trust him absolutely, God too is best worshipped by giving Him an utter confidence. Let us bring to Him even trifles, if they are spoiling our fellowship, for though He does not need to be told, you and I need to tell Him.
3. Finally, think of the burden of the future. And by the future I mean not chiefly death and what may follow, but something that lies much nearer. Probably there is not a thoughtful man in this building who has not occasionally asked himself, with more than a little seriousness: "What is to become of me in the years ahead?—for I am a tempted man." Life is dangerous for people with natures as inflammable as ours; shall we get through without dishonour? Shall we have tempted others to their fall before the end comes? And shall we have gained the power to lift up the fallen? Can we hope to reach the end faithful to God's trust?
Our very manhood forces us to ask that question. And once it is asked, with a calm survey of the facts inside our own hearts and outside, no earnest man is likely to minimise the sheer gravity of the issue. Think of this: will any man who knows himself, who remembers what he has done and therefore what he is, undertake to be responsible for himself? Will he say: I will carve out my own career all by myself alone, and I will undertake to make it a creditable achievement in God's sight? Responsibility for what we ought to be—no! that is too great a load for man, and in the effort to carry it many a brave heart has broken. We have not wisdom enough; we have not strength enough; all we know of human life is against us. So far as the power to secure our own moral destiny goes, we are all upon one level, no matter what our attainments—geniuses and blockheads, scholars and ignoramuses, millionaires and paupers, students and savages. For every one the enterprise is overwhelming; and when that Higher Voice is heard, "Follow me; be thou faithful unto death," then I tell you it is a shallow heart that does not cry, "Who is sufficient for these things?"
Well, this burden, too—to some the greatest and the worst —we must take and lay with the rest on God. Remember, Christ does not save men, then leave them to keep themselves. He would not put us off with a salvation like that. You may have lost faith in your aspirations; your friends too may have lost faith in them; but He looks deeper, down beneath your weakness, down to "the man you long to be and He takes your future as His concern. Ask Him, and He will impart to you a new life and new tastes, inclinations, hopes, and delights, until you can say not in boasting but gratitude, "I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me." Yield to Him, and He will save you in the depths of your being. You will find power in Him. When the last plank goes, the swimmer learns how buoyant is the sea.
How shall we sum it up? Surely it all comes to this, that God has love, and we have burdens, and in His love He longs to be our helper. Do not hide these burdens from God; do not cling to them; apart from His care they can do you nothing but harm. When He stoops down to help and bless, let His love have its own way. Look up and say with thankful heart, "Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight."