Arthur Mursell, March 10, 1872, at the East London Tabernacle
"This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all impurity with greediness!" Ephesians 4:17-19
This sentence forms part of a fearful description of the state of the Gentile population in the midst of which the Ephesian Church was planted. And we feel that, terrible as the sentence is, these two words form the most terrible sentence in it. They brand the stamp of hopelessness upon the picture--they close the shutter on the window, draw down the blind, and mark the whole scene as one of hopeless death!
"Past feeling!" We read in this description of "blindness of heart," and we feel that it describes a very critical and fearful moral condition. But we have also read of a finger which touched blind eyes, and made them see; so we fondle the hope that this finger may yet open and unscale the closed eye of the blind heart that it may greet the light. We will not despair of one concerning whom we must each say, "of such were some of us."
But once it is truly said of a man that he is "past feeling," the spar to which we cling seems to drift out of our hand in the dash of that sad sentence; the shutter seems to fall over the window with a sudden slam; the red sun sinks in the sullen west with an angry dip, and our heart tells us that to be past feeling must truly be to be past hope. No more dreary sentence could possibly be passed upon any man, than that which these two words involve, "past feeling."
But dreary as the picture is, brethren, do not let us evade its contemplation, or look at it as a scene afar off. There is a tendency among us to shift the incidence of such descriptions as these to a distance, and to transfer them to some other quarter.
"Past feeling!" It may apply perhaps to the heathen of a long past age; to such people as those Gentiles in Ephesus to whom the apostle applies it in the text. If it has any possible application now, it must surely refer to the idolaters of distant lands, or at worst, to just a very few of the lowest and most debased among the dregs of society here among ourselves. So we talk about it. As when we are warned of an epidemic we say, "O it is only in Russia, or Persia, or some place a long way off--we need not take precaution here." Then when it comes a little nearer we say, "It is only an imported case, and is not likely to spread; a good system of quarantine will keep it from our country." And when it comes among us we say, "It is only in the neglected neighborhoods, and among intemperate people; abstinence and disinfectants will keep us all right." Thus we trifle with a great grim fact, and will not look it in the face.
Brethren, don't treat this description in this way. If it applies to anyone, however far away, it is bad enough. But if its application were so contingent and remote, it would be as useless, as it is thankless and forbidding, to descant upon it here.
But it hints at nothing so remote. It indicates a numbness which may chill our spirituality; it touches a paralysis which may strike the moral vitals of any one of us, pestilence which may spread its death among the spirit-fibers of our neighbors or ourselves. It is not a distant and unreal danger, having nothing to do with you.
"Past feeling." It does not wait for the recklessness of the embruted bacchanalian, the coarse blasphemer, or the impure harlot--to bring this about. It may come upon the prim religionist, the constant chapel-goer, and the strict church professor. It does not fall only on the brawler in the barroom, the loafer at the casino, or the intriguer in the brothel; but it may fall upon the pew, it may fall upon the pulpit; and fall alike on those who hear the truth and him who speaks it--it may perhaps be said that they too are "past feeling."
Seeing that this is a condition which may beset us all, it becomes a practical question for us to consider. It is a state which steals over the spirit, creeping unawares over the powers and capacities.
There is a process known in chemistry which I think is called annealing, which consists in so hardening a surface as to make it impervious to pressure or to blows. The process is performed by means of extremes of heat or cold. And by similar extremes, the human heart may be made impervious by the fire of passion, succeeded by the chill of indifference to all holy impression.
I. At first, it trembles at the sin--but soon it becomes indifferent. And if anything were to rouse it from that stoicism, the first feeling is one of deep, sharp pain, the arrow rankling, before the peace and calm can settle on the soul. But if the heart and conscience grow so deaf and blind and hard as to be quite "past feeling," then there seems no recall--but only death and judgment. Now, brethren, this process of spiritual numbness may go on in you or me. It is not a disease peculiar to the heathen, to the idolater, or to the open profligate. There is a liability in you and me to be infected. Some forms of it especially beset the stated hearers of the gospel. It is just possible that some may have well-near reached it. If you can hear the mention of such a possibility without a spasm of anxiety, that is a sad sign of at least an approach towards this deadly moral ebb.
When that fearful home-thrust came from the Master's mouth while sitting at the table with the chosen twelve, "one of you--even of you, my long companions, the waiters on my ministry, the comrades of my daily converse, and the witnesses of my miracles--one of you is a devil"--the anxious question fired every eye, and moved every tongue, "Lord, is it I?"
And surely, in presence of the possibility that any who has been trained in a Christian home, who has lisped at the altar of a mother's knee the forms of prayer, who for years has come into the house of God, and heard of Christ, and of his life of love and light, and his death of sacrifice; who is familiar with each moving incident of the story of the cross, and to whom the language of the gospel story is an oft-told tale--that such a one may be "past feeling," or at least may become so, should thrill each one of us with the question of solicitude and concern, "Lord, is it I?"
If none of us has reached this stage, those who are conscious of sinning without compunction, who know that they do guilty things without sorrow or regret, and return again and again to the wrong, easily stifling the conscience which would willingly arrest us, may be sure that we are very fast approaching the condition which is described as "past feeling." Any one of us may bring ourselves to this plight--and anyone of us may, if we will, obtain the grace of God, which alone can save us from it. It is not, then, as a theory or a speculation--but as a personal, practical home-question that we urge the solemn heed of all to the language and meaning of this text, "past feeling."
And as the most practical way of treating this practical question, we would consider for a moment a few of the ways or means through which it is possible to fall into this condition--and possibly the easiest and most dangerous way of all is by yielding to and indulging in wicked and depraving habits. This is the connection in which the words of the text are used. The Gentiles to whom reference is made, had thrown the rein upon the neck of passion, and had given themselves up to work all immorality with greediness. We have a picture of an utter and complete abandonment to the dominion and influence of vice. When we see a man thus captive to his passions, the animal completely ascendant over the intellectual and the moral, and the flesh bloated to a degree which overlays and stifles the movement of the mind--it is a certain and a melancholy symptom of the strides of that moral malady which ultimately leaves its victim "past feeling."
This is a condition which is reached by degrees; it cannot be plunged into all at once. Obstacle after obstacle has to be broken down, voice after voice must be stifled, prayer after prayer despised, memory after memory banished. All these are feelings which have to be passed by: passed by an effort, a wicked effort against conscience, until the striving Spirit has been grieved and grieved again, and at last quenched outright. Alas, the history is too common to be astonishing. It is terrible to think of the realities to which custom may accustom us.
We can read of the havoc of war, and the chapter of accident, and the story of poverty, and all the acts in life's rehearsing tragedy; of how man murders brother man, and calls it glory; of how economy neglects precaution until travelers are mangled, or work-people are worked to death, and call it accident; of how Dives leaves Lazarus to perish at his gate, and call it misfortune. But there are tragedies enacting in the moral and spiritual world, murders and suicides in the world of souls which are ten thousand times more terrible--and yet to which we are still more insensible than these.
There are those around us whose lives are one incessant sacrifice to vice, to the flesh, and to the devil--and who touch the unclean thing with an unfaltering hand, and confront the carnal altar with an unshrinking heart--brave in the foolhardiness of wrong, and cowardly in the moral nerve which alone truly makes the man. These brawlers who disturb us with their orgies, and the prostitutes who flaunt their shameless vices in our streets, were not always as they are. They were not born to this--there was a time when the dew hung pearl-like on youth's tendril, and the unwithered blush was flamboyant on the cheek; the morning of the manhood and womanhood was fair with morning's promise. And it was not blighted all at once--the dew drop did not dry up in a moment; the vermilion blush did not fade in a day.
The mildew crept over it stealthily. It began in some secret yielding to a weakness--the petting of some frail folly. The first weak yielding was followed by a strong remorse--but the second lapse was stronger, and the remorse was weaker; and sin and conscience strove in inverse ratio until the effort at resistance died away, the flame of relenting was quenched by drops, a drop at a time--until impunity left nothing but blackened embers on the hearth. The reluctant slave became a willing captive.
O young man, heed the homely but much-needed warning: Beware of first beginnings of sin! Mark how the Psalmist paints the yielder to his own heart, "He has left off to be wise and to do good; he devises mischief on his bed; he sets himself in a way which is not good; he does not abhor evil." You begin by being able to hear and to speak about sin--then perhaps to witness it--and then to partake in it--and to practice it.
That was a truthful if quaint division of a sermon by that preacher who discoursed on the first verse of the first psalm, and divided his sermon into walking, standing, and sitting. "Blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful," Psalm 1.1. Yes, walking, standing, sitting. First you walk around the sin; there's no harm in that. Then you stand still to look on the sin; and at last you sit down in the chair, and enroll yourself in the scornful company.
Beginnings are slight and pleasant--but they are ever downwards, and the momentum gathers; the path is slippery, and it leads to death and damnation!
Thus we may, any of us, if we give way to that law of sin which is in our members, become "past feeling." We get past the gospel. The gospel of salvation appeals to feeling; and if we get past feeling, then we get past the gospel, which is past hope. God cannot save. We have eluded the great net of grace. "Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul." 1 Peter 2.11. "My son, when sinners entice you, do not consent!" Pro 1.10
II. But this state of things may be induced by indulging in a trifling spirit. We don't mean a mirthful buoyancy, for this will be inflated and made more light and airy and happy by religion. But we mean a habit of trifling with real and solid truths, and looking at life through an unsubstantial and unreal medium. Habits are the results of states of mind--and if we guard against false states of mind, we will avoid bad habits.
But there is an aimless and indolent habit of life into which we may allow ourselves to fall, which has a sadly numbing effect on the better manhood and the moral life. Living for objects below our capacity, opportunity, and destiny, looking at mere pleasure as the "be all and end all here"; trying as it were, to wile away the time from day to day, and literally kill time by such ephemeral and unworthy beguilements, that we may well write on the blank paper of each passing day that is thus wrested from its noblest purposes, "I have lost a day!"
There is a class of people who try to meander and lounge through life as if it were a game to be played out; living for amusement, or for the mere accumulation of money. Brethren, our capacities are measured at the height of our aims; and if we lower those aims, we dwindle our capacities. Pitch the aim low--and you lose the faculty of earnestness, which is the true faculty of living. Sink the purpose to a groveling plane--and you spoil your powers of attention, of concentration, and of realness. You cease to care for anything great or good; you lose all tenacity of impression; you become shallow, empty, a moving machine--not a living man. The intensity of life is gone.
Look back over each day and ask, "Have I hoped, thought, aspired--have I grappled, longed, fought, struggled, prayed? Have I looked onward or upward in any sense? Or have I only blundered on and on, and taken things as they have come; whistling at life's plough, until I have forgotten that I have hold of it at all, or that I have an honest furrow to carve into the acre? If I have lived thus, I have not lived at all. I have only walked in my sleep; and walked nearer to a sleep from which there is no waking. If I go on this way, each fibre will relax; each nerve of manhood and soul will shrink, and I will be "past feeling," past seeing when the morning comes, past hearing when the rooster crows."
III. You may get "past feeling" by slighting and stifling religious impressions. There is not one of us that does not have such impressions at some time and in some form, coming more or less frequently, or with more or less force. Conscience speaks to us all--remorse touches all. Some messenger of forbearing love, comes to us all. But there are two ways of treating conscience, two ways of dealing with remorse, two ways of receiving the messenger. The one is by hearkening--the other by stifling; the one is by yielding--the other by striving; the one is by opening the doorway of a melted heart--the other by opposing the flint of a seared bosom.
Have you never felt in some quiet parenthesis of the day's busy work, or perhaps, in some wakeful moment of the night, "This life of indifference I am leading is not the true life. I ought to be living nearer to the God who made me, and who cares for me, and who upholds me. The events of the past ought to speak to me more emphatically, and the mercies of the present ought to touch me more distinctly."
Does some fond memory ever steal over you, some still voice ever whisper from the spirit-world, some "vanished hand" never lay its finger on your imagination, as though it would willingly warn you of some wrong, or point your mind upwards, or beckon you away from something that is sinful, towards something that is pure? Has no vivid dream come to you with its lessons? Is there no cemetery where a certain quiet grave is eloquent to speak to you--to remind you of a mother's prayers, a wife's faithfulness, a sister's gentleness, or a father's love? There is hardly one of us that does not have such monitors. And how do you treat them? Do you cry back to them with an answering heart, as the tender messengers of God, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!" Or do you turn away and slight them, and try to drown them in the bustle of avoidance, and shake them off as unwelcome and disturbing visitors? As you treat them--so they will treat you. They will either come to you again and again with their gentle, elevating, purifying ministries, and refine you towards a nobler life and a blessed immortality--or they will turn away from your ungenerous and stupid deafness, and leave you as a calloused churl, with "He is given to idols, let him alone!" Hos 4.17. You not only drive away the angel--but you leave the heart blunted and insensitive to its next visit, until at length the very ministries of love and grace abandon you as one who is "past feeling."
IV. And I sometimes think, brethren, that in our common way of listening to the gospel, there may be another danger of gliding or lapsing near to that state of heart which is here spoken of as being "past feeling." We talk about ministers as if they were public performers, and talk of sermons as if they were entertainments. Our thoughts and our remarks are all about the man who speaks: his looks, his style, his manner; or about the Church, and its windows, and its service, and its choir, and its singing; but, oh! so little, so very little about the Savior to whom--if they were real and true, and not a delusion, a sham, and a lie--the sermon, and the supplication, and the song were altogether pointing. Taste is critical--but feeling is dormant. And yet the Church was not open as an arena for your pedantic criticism--but as a banquet hall where your hungry soul was to be fed, and the need of starvelings supplied. And if a full heart has been telling you that Jesus Christ died for sinners; if the emphasis of Christian love has been bidding you to behold the Lamb of God--then if you can hear those tidings without response, or look on Him whom you have pierced and not mourn, then you must truly be well-near "past feeling" altogether.
Ah! brethren, this gospel-preaching and this gospel-hearing grows far too commonplace and mundane in our thoughts; we take it as a sort of everyday thing, and prate away about how this man preaches, and how the other man preaches; and how we like this man, and don't like the other man--and it is all about the man and ourselves, and our likings and dislikings from beginning to end. It is an oblivion of the gospel, this constant mindfulness about the messenger.
You don't think much about the postman; it is the letter that you are intent on when you are expecting the message of love, of gain, or business. But when the message is all about your soul and its immortal interests; all about the Savior who died for sinners--then, all we can think of is the poor letter-carrier, the uniform he wore, the loudness of his knock, and the mode in which he left his message. We put God's letter in the wastepaper basket of forgetfulness and say, "There's nothing by this post; perhaps the next mail will bring some profit, an order or two worth seeing after."
Brother! You think there's no delivery on a Sunday, and there is no use in looking out for news. But I tell you there is a delivery on Sunday, a delivery today, at your door; the message contains an order, and it is an order that you may well neglect all other business until you have executed it; it is an order whose neglect is beggary--but whose acceptance is a royal dower. The messenger thunders at your door; the letter that he leaves is written, signed, and sealed with blood, and these are its contents: "I counsel you to buy from me gold tried in the fire, and white clothing that you may be rich!" Rev 3.18. For "why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" Isaiah 55.2
O, is it too much to say that the man who can sit and hear and know that he is a sinner, and that Christ is a Savior; who can hear of sin, of righteousness, and the judgment to come; of Christ and his cross; of the devil and his angels; of Heaven and Hell--and go away and think of nothing but the dress, and tone of voice, of the poor messenger who told the news. Is it too much to say of such a man that he is "past feeling"? Brethren, we are not performers set up for you to criticize. It is nothing whether you like us or don't like us. We are not to be brought into the calculation at all.
If the shout rings out on board ship "breakers ahead!" the passengers don't say "Dear me, what a wonderful voice that man has," but they wake to the danger and cry for deliverance. We are simply "ambassadors for Christ" and--unless we are deceivers, charlatans, impostors, "as though God beseeched you by us, we beg in Christ's stead, be reconciled to God; for he has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God through him." 2 Cor 5.20-21
In this way then, you and I may glide on towards that stage of heart-life which is described as being "past feeling." You may turn this glorious sanctuary into a soul-womb for a new life--or into a sarcophagus for the entombment of your spirit. The gospel of love is a vain thing--the story of the cross is an unmeaning fable--to him who will not hearken with his heart as well as with his ears.
O my dear, dear brothers and sisters, it is very likely that you and I may never stand face to face again until we meet before the final judgment. But do listen while I tell you this: it will be entirely your own fault if you ever get "past feeling." There is no doctrine which need stand in your way. All that Christ teaches, is meant to draw you. Don't believe anything that seems to limit his love, for any such construction of it is a lie. He does love sinners. He does call sinners to repentance. If you get "past feeling" it will be because you thrust aside the Spirit who today renews His strivings with you. It will be because you stopped your ears. The means of grace are yours, and there is grace abounding for you, waiting just for you to take it. There is manna, like crystals from the crown of God, gemming the stubble of the desert; only rise and gather it. There is the Rock, only touch it with the rod, and see if the silver stream will not flash forth and ripple to your feet, so that you may quench your thirst and lave your brow.
If you get "past feeling" it will not be because you never had the feeling; it will not be because grace did not appeal to it. Past, PAST feeling. It shows that the opportunity has been yours, and you have passed it by; that you have let the harvest go and the summer end--and thrust in no sickle for the grain. If in company with your idol, you pass by the day of grace, God may pass you by and say, "He is given to idols, let him alone!"
But today he does not say "let him alone." He says "plead with him, tell him I that I do not delight in the death of a sinner--but would rather he would turn and live." Ezekiel 18.32. Show him my cross, my hands, my feet, my pierced side! Speak forth the tidings of my full, my free salvation. Give it the emphasis of my oath, sworn by my own eternal throne, by the sapphire of my temple, and the jewels of my crown. Tell the worst, the vilest, the hardest sinner--that I wait only for the touch of faith upon my garment's furthest hem, that he may be saved with an everlasting salvation!"
Brethren, that is our commission this morning, and we have come here to utter it in the Master's name. It is but a weak keynote to a tune which I beg God that your pastor may have strength and grace to sing to you, until it has charmed away the last doubt or dread from tens of thousands of awakened hearts; but you who are here now must not wait for any other voice to carry on the tune. There is one last word which we are permitted and commissioned to sound and shout into each ear with all the emphasis of Calvary, with all the unction of a Savior's love; that word is "Now!" "Now is the accepted time! now is the day of salvation!"
Yes, it is the accepted time for you, old man, thin-locked and tottering--grey in sin, hoary in insensibility, with the cold white snow of apathy more thick upon your heart than the snow of years upon your brow. Don't say you are "past feeling;" there's still some pulse stirring in your heart. Your little grandchild with her flaxen locks and big blue eyes can coax a tear into your dim eye by a look. O let her come up on your knee and tell you what she has been learning at Sunday school, that Jesus saved a man who asked for his remembrance with his last breath; let her sing to you the song they taught her, "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child." And even now you will find Him ready at the invocation of that simple ministry, to look upon your second childhood, forgetting all your manhood's sins; and your night shall reflect the faith-sheen of that child's morning, and your December shall be crowned with the dew-pearls and the blooms of May. There's some spark under the crust of that seeming death, which the cross can touch and kindle. May God wake it into feeling now!
But you, young men and young women, yours is the opportunity! O what would some of the old sires not give to tear up the blotted and ill-written past, that they might start afresh with you! that they might have the spiritual opportunity which is yours. And yet some of you intend to go away from this place just as you came into it. Is it so? Do you intend to go out as you came in? I tell you, in God's name, you can't do it. You must go out either better or worse than you came in; either nearer to God--or further from him; either nearer Heaven--or nearer Hell. These are not vain imaginations; they are not phantoms. It is not rhapsody we speak. They are solid, solemn facts.
O dear friend, as a dying man, let me beseech you, give your heart to God. For Christ's dear sake, stop wavering! Give up procrastination. Drive out the thief of time from your house. Begin a manly struggle with your sin. Begin a steady consecration to your Savior. Enlist on the conscription of Christ's chivalry. Dare to be a follower of the crucified. O, my tongue is feeble, my words are weak, the language falters as the heart grows full. I don't know what to say; and yet I don't like to leave you. O that the appeal will come from every bleeding wound of the dear Lamb of God, as though a speaking tongue pleaded and thrilled between its crimson lips; it comes all warm and loving from the heart of him who lived the life and died the death, and pioneered the resurrection; and, to the deafest ear, the dullest heart, the deadest in its trespasses and sins, it cries, "Come unto me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Mat 11.28. "I will restore the years which the canker-worm has eaten." Joel 2.25. And "though your sins are as scarlet they shall be as wool, and though they are red like crimson, they shall be whiter than the snow." Isaiah 1.18