Sowing and Reaping
Robert Dale, 1884
It is not safe to assume that "Whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap." Righteousness and sin always yield their harvests. The moral results of all our actions — of the least as well as of the greatest — are determined by definite and irresistible laws. But as soon as we descend into the lower provinces of human life, the steadfastness of the Divine order seems to fail us, and nothing is certain. There is a great deal of sowing which is followed by no reaping — at least in this life. The seed rots in the ground; the young wheat is blighted; the harvest, just when it is touched by the autumn sun, is destroyed by storms.
We can make sure of nothing except the supreme ends of life, and this should be taken for granted in all our plans and expectations. A young merchant may resolve to build up a great fortune. He may have all the capital he needs, and a perfect mastery of his business. He may be honest, diligent, alert, prudent. And after he has worked hard for twenty years, a great commercial catastrophe may ruin in a month, the results of all his industry and skill.
Or a young politician may resolve to win high political office. He may be animated — not by personal ambition — but by a genuine patriotism, and an unselfish desire to render service to the State. Everything may seem to be in his favor. He may have an ample fortune and adequate intellectual power. He may be laborious, fearless, and upright. Year by year his knowledge of public affairs may become more varied and more exact — and year by year he may win increasing popularity. But success is not certain. Some physical infirmity, which was unsuspected in early manhood, may begin to show itself, just as he is reaching the maturity of his strength; or some fatal defect of temper; or in the vicissitudes of public affairs, a grave difference of opinion emerges between himself and his party; or he has a serious illness from which he never quite recovers; or he meets with an accident, slight in itself, which incapacitates him for the public service; and as far as the great object is concerned, on which he has concentrated all his energy — he is baffled and defeated.
The same uncertainty menaces men in every pursuit. A surgeon acquires a unique knowledge of some special form of disease and a skill which seems almost supernatural. For fifteen or twenty years he has sacrificed everything to his noble profession. He has been distrusted, and has endured distrust with unflinching courage. He has been thwarted by professional jealousy, and has kept his temper sweet and generous. He has lived a hard and active life, but has never stooped to mean and ignoble methods of improving his fortunes. At last his loyal devotion to science, and his generous passion for the relief of suffering, seem on the point of yielding a splendid harvest. His magnificent skill is acknowledged. He has secured the public confidence, which he always deserved. A great position has been fairly won — a position which gives him wealth, reputation, and, what he values more than either — the opportunity of immense usefulness. And just then he happens to be in a railway accident, or is thrown off a horse, and he receives a nervous shock which makes his hand unsteady and his eye untrue. He has been sowing for years, but he never reaps.
Human life has still sadder experiences than these. You may try to get a harvest of affection from your children and friends; but your seed is sown on the "way-side," and those whose love you most long for, and try most earnestly to win — forget your kindest words as soon as they are spoken, your kindest services as soon as they are done.
Or your seed is sown on "rocky places;" there is a prompt and cordial response to your affection, but there is no "deepness of earth" — no capacity for strong and enduring love; the love is a passing impulse, and its strength is soon spent.
Or your seed is sown "among thorns;" the cares of life or its pleasures so fill the heart and mind, that in the crowd of less gentle and less noble interests — you and your love are forgotten.
All these things happen to us in our endeavors to win the love and confidence of others. In those provinces of life which lie below the eternal and the Divine — we cannot be sure that "whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap."
There are times when we say bitter words about the uncertainty and confusion of human affairs. We turn cynical. What is the use of working hard — if we cannot make sure of the reward of our labor? Why practice self-denial — if we are not certain that anything will come of it? Why qualify ourselves for positions which we may never fill? What practical wisdom is there in laying down plans of life which cover many years — when we are at the mercy of innumerable accidents which in a moment may bring all our schemes to nothing? Why should we take trouble to serve others who, for anything we know — will be ungrateful for all our love and service?
But the disorder which God permits in the lower provinces of human life — is a part of that wise and kindly severity by which He disciplines the race for eternal righteousness and eternal joy. The confusion and the uncertainty warn us against spending our strength for objects which are below the true height of our eternal destiny. The low levels of life are swept by destructive floods, or are smitten with fatal blight; they are unfenced and unprotected, and are open to the incursions of marauding tribes. What we sow here — we are never certain of reaping. But the eternal fields are within our reach — in these we are sure of golden harvests.
God is the only Master who always gives His servants the wages they work for. If you work for wealth — it may slip from your hands just when you think that you have achieved the most splendid success. If you discipline yourself for professional eminence — and when you are just reaching the height of your hopes, you may have a ruinous fall. If you resolve to serve the State, and after years of honest preparation — the opportunity of service may never come. If you try to win the affection of those dearest to your heart — you may be cruelly disappointed.
But if you serve God — you cannot fail. Serve Him in your business, and every hour you spend in your counting-house or in your business — whether you make money or lose it — will increase your treasure in Heaven. Serve God in your profession, and whether you are successful or not in your professional life — every year of labor will discipline you for the higher activities on the other side of death. In your schemes for serving the public, let it be your supreme object to serve Him, and though you may
never be appointed to the obscurest administrative office, and may never exert any appreciable influence on the course of public affairs — you will make sure of honorable distinctions and honorable functions in the kingdom of God. Serve your children and your friends for the sake of serving Him — and though you may win from them no affection and gratitude, you will hear from the lips of Christ the surprising words: "Inasmuch as you did it unto one of these . . . you did it unto Me. Come, you who are blessed by My Father — inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"
In a world like this, how is it that men who believe in the living God, and whose thoughts wander through eternity, can be indifferent to the glorious ages which are their inheritance in Christ, and to the Will which is their supreme law? Even where emotion is touched and imagination kindled by the solemnities and grandeurs of God's invisible and eternal kingdom — conduct is often withdrawn from its control. A life of faultless morality, as well as a life of degrading vice — may be uninspired by reverence for God's eternal righteousness and by gratitude for God's eternal love.
Deeds good in themselves — may be done without regard to Him who has the right to our perfect and unreserved obedience. It may be only by accident, that they coincide with the Divine will. They may be done to discharge claims arising out of the transient relationships of this life, and to fulfill laws which we would recognize as authoritative — if we had never caught sight of the throne of God and had no prevision of the world beyond death. There may be practical Atheism where there is theoretical faith in the Divine existence and authority. The disappearance of God from the creed, would have no effect on life and character.
But if there is nothing of the eternal and the Divine in our earthly conduct, we are sowing no seed from which we have a right to expect a Divine and eternal harvest. The connection between sowing and happy reaping — is uncertain and precarious, except for those who have passed into the kingdom of God and who have received the life of God, who have made the Divine thought and purpose the law of all their actions, and the ground of all their hopes.
The harvest they are sowing today may not be ready tomorrow or the day after — but "in due season they will reap, if they faint not!" I will not press the words as far as to say that there is nothing to be hoped for until the "season" comes for reaping that eternal harvest which is absolutely certain. Many Christian people can say with Oliver Cromwell, "I have had plentiful wages beforehand, and I am sure I shall never earn the least mite."
But it may sustain the courage and constancy of others to be reminded that the great harvest which they are sowing is to be reaped in the sunlit fields of immortality. There are good men to whom in this world, the calm and golden autumn never comes. For them the tree of life does not yield its fruit every month. They seem to labor in vain, and to spend their strength for nothing. Their life is one prolonged winter — or at best an uncongenial spring. They have hardly any sunshine, and instead of the kindly heat of summer in which they might ripen to a beautiful righteousness — they are exposed to keen and cruel winds. One dreary season follows another; there is nothing to break the depressing monotony of the cloudy, cheerless years. They plough the same fields over and over again — and the soil is heavy and the plowing is hard work. They try to clean the ground, but the roots of the weeds refuse to be torn out, and after all their labor the stones seem to be as thick as when they began. They sow good seed — but sow in tears, and they wonder whether the tender green will ever show itself above the bare brown earth.
Let them not despair. The sure promise of God will not be broken. The law of the eternal kingdom will not fail. Let them not grow "weary in well doing." Let them not become impatient.
Impatient! Why should they be? Suppose that they have to live a life of sixty or seventy years, ploughing and sowing, in dreary, dismal weather, with dark days and cold nights — what are their labors compared with the everlasting harvest? Let one good deed follow another; let every brave triumph over temptation give heart and courage for the conflict which follows it; let the ascent of one mountain height of moral and spiritual achievement be accepted as little more than the discovery of a loftier height beyond — they have need of endurance, but the end will crown all. In far-off worlds, in far-off ages, among triumphant saints, in the presence of an approving God — they will reap the golden harvest of their well-doing at last.
When we take sides with God — God takes sides with us. Work done for God is never wasted. This truth has very wide applications. With some qualifications it holds good in reference to other harvests than those which are to be reaped in our own personal joy. Work of every kind that God cares for, is done in alliance with God's eternal wisdom and strength.
It is in the highest work of all, that there seems to be the gravest reason for despondency. Many weary centuries have gone by, and the vessel of the Church is still in mid-ocean, laboring heavily and beaten with storms. The happy shores for which she is sailing seem as far off as ever. In the Christian work which lies nearest to every one of us, there is very much to chasten the exultation of hope with which, perhaps, most of us began it. To measure the harvest which we have already reaped against the zeal, and energy, and thoughtfulness, and solicitude with which we have labored, are indeed, a perilous business. It may be that those of us who have been least successful, have no great occasion for surprise. In work of this kind it is the quality, not the quantity, of work that counts. And if we have been successful at all — successful, I mean, in winning the trust of a few men for Christ, in persuading them to accept His will as their highest law, in enriching their knowledge of God, in ennobling their conception of Christian righteousness; if we have been successful, here and there, in finding some solitary sheep which had been lost, and successful in keeping a very little flock from going astray — the results of our work are of infinite value! There is no proportion between the worth of our labor — and what, through God's infinite goodness, we have been permitted to accomplish!