One more excerpt from one of my favorite books…
Dare We Imagine Thee as Good as Thou Art?
(A fictional selection from The Musician’s Quest / Robert Flaconer)
Written By George MacDonald
Compiled, Arranged and Edited by Michael R Phillips
Robert consequently began to make efforts toward the saving of his soul, a most rational and prudent exercise but hardly Christian in its nature. His imagination began to busy itself concerning the dire consequences of not entering into the refuge of faith. He made many frantic efforts to believe that he believed and took to keeping the Sabbath very carefully – that is, he went to church three times, never said a word on any subject unconnected with religion, read only religious books, never whistled, stopped thinking of his lost fiddle, and so on – all the time feeling that God was ready to pounce on him if he failed once.
But even through the horrible vapors of these vain endeavors, which denied God altogether as the maker of the world and denied Robert of his soul and heart and brain, there broke a little light from the dim windows of the few books that came his way. In one of these he read a story of a cherub who repents of making a choice with Satan, mourns over his apostasy, and haunts unseen the steps of our Savior. He would gladly return to his lost duties in heaven if only he might. The doubtful situation was left unsolved in the volume, and thus remained unsolved in Robert’s mind as well. Would poor Abaddon be forgiven and taken home again?
By Robert’s own instincts, he felt there could be no question of his being forgiven. But according to what he had been taught, there could be no question of his perdition. Having no one to talk to, he questioned with himself, usually siding with the instinctively correct half of himself which supported the merciful view of the case. For all his efforts at keeping the Sabbath had, in his own honest judgment, failed so entirely that he had now come to believe himself not one of those elected for salvation. Therefore, this situation with the fallen angel was no mere mental exercise; for all he knew he might find himself in such a position one day – out in the fold and wanting to get back in.
He made one attempt to open the subject with Shargar.
“Shargar, what do you think?” he said suddenly one day. “If a devil were to repent, would God forgive him?”
“There’s no saying what folk would do till once they’ve tried,” returned Shargar cautiously.
Robert did not care to resume the question with one who so circumspectly refused to take a view of the matter.
He made an attempt with his grandmother.
One Sunday, after trying for a time to revolve his thoughts in due orbit around the mind of the Rev. Hugh MacCleary, as projected in a sermon which he had botched up out of a commentary, Robert failed at last and flew off into what the said gentleman would have pronounced “very dangerous speculation, seeing no man is to go beyond what is written in the Bible, which contains not only the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, for this time and all future time – both here and in the world to come.” Some such sentence, at least, was in his sermon that day, and the preacher no doubt supposed St. Matthew, not St. Matthew Henry, accountable for its origination. In the limbo into which Robert’s spirit then flew, it had been sorely exercised about the substitution of the sufferings of Christ for those which humanity must else have endured while ages rolled on – mere ripples on the ocean of eternity.
After dinner, when the table had been cleared by Betty, they drew chairs to the fire and Robert began reading, as was the custom, to his grandmother out of the family Bible while Shargar sat listening. Robert had not read long, however, before he looked up and asked, “Wasn’t that a mean trick of Joseph, Grandmother, to put that cup, and a silver one too, into Benjamin’s sack?”
“Laddie, take care what ye say aboot Joseph, for he was a type o’ Christ.”
“How was that, Grandmother?”
“They sold him t’ the Ishmaelites for silver, as Judas did t’ the Lord.”
“Did he bear the sins of them that sold him?”
“Ye could say, i’ a way, he did, for he was sore afflicted before he made it up t’ be the king’s right hand. And then he kept a whole heap o’ punishment off his brothers.”
So, Grandmother, other folk than Christ might suffer for the sins of their neighbors?”
“Ay, laddie, many a one has t’ do that. But not t’ make atonement, ye know. Nothing but the suffering o’ the spotless could do that. The Lord wouldn’t be satisfied wi’ less than that. It must be the innocent t’ suffer for the guilty.”
“I understand that,” said Robert, who had heard it so often that he had not yet thought of trying to understand it. “But if we get to the good place, we’ll all be innocent, won’t we, Grannie?”
“Ay, we will – washed spotless an’ pure an’ clean an’ dressed i’ the wedding garment an’ set down at the table wi’ him an’ wi’ his Father. That’s them that believes i’ him, ye know.”
“Of course, Grannie – Well, you see, I have been thinking of a plan for almost emptying hell.”
“What’s i’ the boy’s head now? Truth, ye shouldn’t be meddling wi’ such subjects, laddie!”
“I don’t want to say anything to vex you, Grannie. I’ll go on with the chapter.”
“Oh, go on wi’ what ye were going t’ say. Ye won’t say much wrong before I’ll cry stop,” said Mrs. Falconer, curious to know what had been moving in the boy’s mind, but watching him like a cat, ready to spring on the first visible hair of the old Adam.
Robert, for his part, recalling the outbreak of terrible grief which he had heard from his grandmother on that memorable night, truly thought that his project would bring comfort to a mind burdened with such care. Thus he went on with the explaining of his plan.
“All of them that sits down to the supper of the Lamb will sit there because Christ suffered the punishment due to their sins – won’t they, Grannie?”
“But it’ll be weighing hard on their hearts to be sitting there eating and drinking and talking away and enjoying themselves when every now and then there’ll come a sigh of wailing up form the bad place, and the smell of burning hard to stand.”
“What put that int’ yer head, laddie? There’s no reason t’ think that hell’s so near heaven as that. The Lord forbid it.”
“Well, but, Grannie, they’ll know all the same, whether they smell it or not. And I can’t help thinking that the farther away I thought they were, the worse it would be to think about them. Indeed, it would be worse.”
“What are ye driving at, laddie? I can’t understand ye,” said Mrs. Falconer, feeling very uncomfortable and yet curious to hear what would come next. “I don’t imagine we’d hae t’ think much-“
But here I presume the thought of the added desolation of her Andrew if she were to forget him, as well as his father in heaven, stopped the flow of her words. She paused, and Robert took up his parable and went on, first with yet another question.
“Do you think, Grannie, that a body would be allowed to speak a word in public there – at the big, long table, I mean?”
“Why not, if it were done we’ modesty an’ for a good reason. But really, laddie, I doubt ye’re rambling altogether. Ye heard nothing like that today from Mr. MacCleary.”
“No, no, he said nothing about it. But maybe I’ll go and ask him though.”
“What I’m going to tell you, Grannie.”
“Well, tell away an’ hae done wi’ it. I’m growing tired o’ it.”
I was something else than tired she was growing.
“Well, I’m going to try as hard as I can to make it there.”
“I hope ye will. Strive an’ pray. Resist the Devil. Walk i’ the light. Trust not t’ yerself, but trust i’ Christ an’ his salvation.”
“Ay, ay, Grannie. Well – ”
“Aren’t ye done yet?”
“No. I’m but just beginning.”
“Beginning, are ye? Humph!”
“Well, if I make it there, the very first night I sit down with the rest of them I’m going to stand up and say – that is if the Master at the head of the table doesn’t tell me to sit down – ‘Brothers and sisters, listen to me for one minute, and – O Lord, if I say something wrong, just take the speech from me and I’ll sit down dumb and rebuked. We’re all here by grace and not by merit, except his, as you all know better than me because you have been here longer than me. But it’s just tugging at my heart to think of them that’s down there. Now we have no merit, and they have no merit. So why are we here and them there? But now we’re washed clean and innocent. So now, when there’s no punishment left on us, it seems to me that we might bear some of the sins of them that has too many. I call upon each and every one of you that has a friend or neighbor down yonder to rise up and taste not a bit nor drink a drink tell we go up together to the foot of the throne and pray the Lord to let us go and do as the Master did before us, and bear the griefs and carry their sorrows down in hell there. And if they repent it may be that they will get remission of their sins and come up here with us at last, and sit down with us at this table – all through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, at the head of the table there.’”
“No, Robert, let’s hae no more o’ this. Ye know as well as I do that them that goes there, their doom is fixed an’ nothing can alter it. An’ we’re not t’ allow our imaginations t’ carry beyond the scripture. We have our own salvation t’ work out wi’ fear an’ trembling. We hae nothing t’ do wi’ what’s hidden. Only see that ye make it there yerself. That’s enough for ye t’ mind.”
After tea, Mrs. Falconer sent Shargar to church with Betty. When Robert and she were alone together, “Laddie,” she said, “ye must beware o’ judging the Almighty. What looks t’ ye like a wrong may be a right. We don’t know all things. An’ he’s – he’s not dead yet – I don’t believe that he is – an’ he may make it there yet.”
Her voice failed her. And Robert had nothing to say. He had all his say before.
“Pray, Robert, pray for yer father, laddie,” she resumed, “for we hae good reason t’ be anxious about him. Pray while there’s life an’ hope. Give the Lord no rest. Pray t’ him night an’ day as I do, that he would lead him t’ see the error o’ his ways an’ turn t’ the Lord who’s ready t’ pardon. If yer mother had lived, I would hae more hope, I confess, for she was a good lady an’ pretty sweet-tongued. But it was the care o’ her heart aboot him that shortened her days. An’ all that’ll be laid upon him: he’ll hae t’ account for it. Eh, Robert, my man, be a good lad an’ serve the Lord wi’ all yer heart, an’ soul, an’ strength, an’ mind. For if ye go wrong, yer father will hae t’ bear nobody knows how much punishment, for he’s done nothing t’ bring ye up i’ the way ye should go. For the sake o’ yer poor father, hold t’ the right road. I’ may spare him a pang or two at the bad place. Eh, if the Lord would only take me an’ let him go!”
Involuntarily and unconsciously the grandmother’s love was adopting the hope which she had denounced in her grandson. Robert saw it, but was never one to push a victory. He said nothing. Only a tear or two at the memory of the wayward man he remembered rolled down his cheeks. His grandmother, herself weeping silently, took her neatly folded handkerchief from her pocket and wiped her grandson’s fresh cheeks, then wiped her own withered face. And from that moment Robert knew that he loved her.
Then followed the Sabbath-evening prayer. They knelt down together and she uttered a long, extemporary prayer, full of Scripture phrases but not the less earnest and simple, for it flowed from a heart of goodness. Then Robert had to pray after her, loud in her ear, that she might hear him thoroughly, so that he often felt as if he were praying to her and not to God at all.
She had begun to teach him to pray so early in his life that the custom reached beyond the confines of his memory. At first he had had to repeat the words after her. Then she made him construct his own utterances, now and then giving him a suggestion when he fell silent, or putting a phrase into what she considered more suitable language.
On the present occasion, after she had ended her petitions with those for Jews and pagans and for the “Pope o’ Rome,” she turned to Robert with the usual, “Now, Robert,” and Robert began. But after he had gone for some time with the ordinary phrases, he turned all at once into a new track. Instead of praying in general terms for “those that would not walk in the right way,” he said, “O Lord! Save my father,” and there paused.
“If it be thy will,” suggested his grandmother.
But Robert remained silent. His grandmother repeated the clause.
“I’m trying, Grandmother,” said Robert, “but I can’t say it. I dare not say an if about it. It would be like giving in to his damnation. We must have him saved, Grannie!”
“Laddie, laddie! Hold yer toungue!” remonstrated Mrs. Falconer in a tone of distress. “O Lord, forgive him. He’s young an’ doesn’t know better yet. He can’t understand thy ways, nor for that matter can I pretend t’ understand them myself. But thou art all light an i’ thee is no darkness at all. An’ thy light comes int’ our blind eyes an’ makes them blinder yet. But, O Lord, if it would please thee t’ hear our prayer – eh! how we would praise thee! An’ my Andrew would praise thee more than ninety an’ nine o’ them that need no repentance.”
A long pause followed. And then the only words that would come were, “For Christ’s sake, Amen.”
They rose from their knees and Mrs. Falconer sat down by her fire, with her feet on her little wooden stool, and began to quietly review her past life and follow her son through all conditions and circumstances to her imaginable. And when the world to come arose before her, clad in all the glories which her fancy, chilled by education and years, could supply, it was but to vanish in the gloom of the remembrance of poor Andrew with whom she dared not hope to share it.
She felt bound to go on believing as she had been taught, for sometimes the most original mind has the strongest sense of law upon it. Obedience was indeed an essential element of her creed. But she had not yet been sufficiently impressed with the truth that while obedience is the law of the kingdom, it is of considerable importance that which is obeyed should in truth be the will of God.