The Note Of Pity

In the chapter just concluded we have tried to lay down that one

essential of the preacher's message is the note of sternness, that the

preacher is, on God's behalf, the accuser of his hearers, charging them

before the bar of conscience, declaring to the soul its state and

condition, pronouncing, also, the punishment which must follow

persistent rebellion against God. It becomes us immediately to say

something as to another note which must be heard in unison with this of

sternness, and that is the note of pity. It is time to insist upon

this. Only that man can declare the terrors of the law who knows

something of the spirit of the prophet who cried, "Oh, that my head

were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day

and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" Only he can cry

out against Jerusalem who, when he beholds the city, weeps over it as

he sees its crime and shame and notes the tempest gathering to burst

over its "cloud-capp'd towers, its solemn temples, its airy palaces."

The preacher, like his Lord, must be "a man of sorrows and acquainted

with grief." It must be true of him that for "the hurt of the

daughter of My people was He stricken." His heart must have bled for

the tragedy of the world!

And into the delivery of the message this pity must find its way and

have expression, if not always in word, certainly in tone. In tone, we

say, for the tone of the preacher's utterance is almost, if not quite,

as important as its words. Lacking the accent of pity, the accusations

of the preacher will degenerate into scolding, and of all scolds the

pulpit scold is the most objectionable. Without a pitiful heart his

exposure of human nature will become mere fault-finding, and a

fault-finding ministry is a ministry of desolation. Again, without a

pitiful heart the preacher's utterance of the divine judgment will be

but more or less terrifying threats, and the pulpit is not set up to

threaten but to pronounce. We have heard preaching of this order. "I

am not at all well to-night," said a clergyman of whom we once read,

"and I shall give it 'em hot." Men are sometimes reminded of their

sins, not out of a sense of duty borne in upon a reluctant spirit, but

because the wind happens to be in the east, or the preacher's nerves

are badly out of order. The Church is told of her coldness, her

indolence and unfaithfulness, her narrowness, bigotry and greed, not

because, after a struggle to win permission to tell a more flattering

tale, the preacher comes forth under a divine compulsion to "cry aloud

and spare not," but because his digestion is upset, or his temporal

concerns are awry, or even because his personal ambitions have been

disappointed and himself unappreciated. There is such a thing as

bad-tempered, ill-natured preaching, in which the weapons of the Bible

armoury are borrowed for the expression of the preacher's chagrin and

spite. In a literal sense every word he speaks may be true, but the

spirit of the message destroys all possible good effects and turns the

word of God into an angry snarl. It might, therefore, be well to

decide to preach along lines of accusation, exposure, judgment or

warning only on those days when the heart is happiest, when life goes

well and the cheek of health glows with its brightest bloom. Perhaps

the resolution might take such a form as this:--Resolved: Never to

preach a hard sermon when I feel like doing so.

All this is no fancy picture, and the peril indicated is not imaginary

but real. The story of Jonah is left to all time for the warning of

the preacher. Seated yonder in his booth, biting his nails in

vexation, he is the type of the preacher whose righteous indignation,

because of its lack of that element of unselfishness, and that spirit

of pity by which moral anger should always be qualified, becomes simply

grim and merciless wrath. "Doest thou well to be angry?" the eternal

voice asks of him and of all who follow in his prophetic line. It was

not thus that Jesus looked upon the multitude. They despised Him--many

of them. That He knew. They accused and slandered Him one to another

and in their own secret hearts. Some of them said He was a glutton and

a wine-bibber, others that He had a devil, others, again, that He was

the friend of publicans and sinners. They ate His bread, accepted His

healing kindness, and all the time were making ready to cry, "Not this

man, but Barabbas," when opportunity should arise. All this He

understood, but "when He saw the multitudes He was moved with

compassion on them, because they fainted and were scattered abroad as

sheep having no shepherd."

"All His words are music,

Though they make me weep,

Infinitely tender,

Infinitely deep."

And the absence of this undertone of pity from the message of the

preacher always destroys the effect of his warnings and causes the

hearer to be less afraid than angry, as is always the case when men are

captiously scolded and found fault with and threatened. On the other

hand, its presence gives power and penetration to the terrors borne

upon its breath. It is instinctively felt that the hard words of the

preacher are spoken as by one who weeps before he speaks. He does but

speak because he must, because it would be cruellest cruelty to be

silent. "For Zion's sake I will not hold my peace." "Zion's

sake"--here, then, is the motive of all this unfolding of the secret

history of the hearer's heart and life. From very pity this man cannot

speak of health when he sees the canker in the rose which blooms upon

the cheek, when he perceives that, despite the appearance of strength

and vigour, "the whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint." He has

not told us pleasant things to-day, though we would have liked to hear

them, and he would have been glad to tell them, because he is too

deeply concerned for us to prophesy golden groves at the end of a

journey whose every footstep is taken upon the broad road leading to

destruction. With meekness can we receive the reproofs of a parent

knowing that, however hard his word, his heart is tender. "Whom He

loveth He chasteneth," was written of the Lord. When it can be written

of the Lord's ambassador, then again it will be true that although "no

chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous but grievous," yet will

it yield "the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are

exercised thereby." Let us take it, then, that pity is an essential of

the preacher's message, and must make its presence felt, if not in

word, at least in accent, or tone, or atmosphere. Is it too late in

the argument to ask what this pity really and truly is?

In Theodore Hunger's volume, "The Freedom of Faith," a book which will

be found in many of our libraries, there is a chapter on the pity of

Jesus Christ which would probably repay us for another perusal. Very

powerfully the author maintains that pity is a deeper and sublimer

passion than love. In "The Alchemist," Balzac, depicting an ideally

perfect affection makes the object of it deformed, indicating that love

has not attained its highest height until it has become pity. Thus the

mother's love for her child is never so noble as when expressed in

ministering to its sickness. How near to the little one does she come

in those painful, anxious hours when, perchance, all the reward her

love seems like to bring is the blighting of her dearest hopes. She

loves her child in health, but that love is rewarded with joy; she

loves it as it triumphs in its little tasks of intellect, but that love

is rewarded with pride; its moral achievements awaken her admiration;

its spiritual victories arouse her gratitude, and in admiration and

gratitude, love has compensation; but none of these emotions so carry

over her soul into fellowship with the soul of that dear one, none

bring her into a touch so close, or give such gentleness to the

fingers, such softness and tenderness to the voice as does pity, "when

pain and sickness wring the brow." And what of the parental feeling

for that other child--the child, we mean, whose name no one speaks in

her ear, who has gone out from the family circle, who is away in the

far country, wasting his substance in riotous living; who, indeed,

has wasted it, and who is now feeding the swine of the stranger, and

longing to fill his belly with the husks that the swine do eat?

Behold, now, the father standing upon the threshold shading his eyes as

longingly he gazes along the road which climbs the distant hill. A

world of trouble is in his eyes. "Yonder young fool who has wandered

away is not worth a single sigh of this grand old man," we say. "He is

reaping as he has sown," we moralise. Time was when this youth went

brightly to and fro in the homestead, when innocence sat throned upon

his forehead, when truth shone brightly from his eyes, when purity and

modesty mantled with blushes his boyish cheek. The old man loved him

then. But this watching from the threshold, this long, long tearful

look down the road winding away to the land of profligacy and shame,

these are the glories of his love. Here is pity. This is affection

glowing in its fairest flower, its most precious fruit. Before us is a

dim adumbration of the pity of God, the highest manifestation of His

love for man. Similarly the pity of man for man is the highest

manifestation of our love one for another. It is by pity, and by pity

only, that humanity can be brought into true unity. It is by pity that

the preacher comes into oneness with his congregation. There is a

sense in which he comes nearer to his hearers through their sufferings

and their sins than through their joys and their virtues, for suffering

and sin give occasion for compassion. Only let the man in the pulpit

feel this emotion toward the man in the pew; only let the tragedy of

his wrong-doing, the poverty of his soul resultant from his neglect of

higher things, the awful fact that he is without God and hope in the

world come home to the preacher's heart; only let the shadow of this

man's fate cast its darkness upon the preacher's soul and oh! how

precious does that man become, sinner though he be. Let the man in the

pew but feel that the heart of the man in the pulpit is almost breaking

for the longing it has toward him and how differently will he receive

the reproof that man may bring; with what new reverence will he attend

to the solemn warning he may utter. At last a brother seeks his soul!

For another result of pity will be that the Gospel of reconciliation

will be preached indeed. If from the compulsion of compassion the

preacher declared the terrors of the law, from the same divine concern

he will glory to declare the way of return, the counsel and invitation

of mercy. Even as none but a pitiful man can declare the words of the

law so only a pitiful man can declare the provisions and conditions of

the Cross. If the words of the Law, without pity are mere scolding and

fault-finding and threatening, the words of the Gospel without pity

must be cold, perfunctory and lifeless. Calvary was the expression of

infinite compassion. In its own spirit alone can its message be set

forth. You may preach even the justice of God in such a way as to make

His judgments seem full of the kindest intention to the heart. On the

other hand, you may preach the sacrifice of love in such a manner as to

make the story hard as judgment thunders. You may throw a pardon at a

man in such a fashion as to make the forgiveness it expresses more

bitter than a curse.

But how are we so to abound in pity as to be able, at all times, to

fill our message with its gracious influence, for pity is not always

easy, in which fact is one element of its high nobility? The sins of

men, their vices with their results in life and character, often make

it hard to pity them. A horrible thing is sin, and so horrible its

effects that it seems, at times, almost impossible to look upon those

in whom these effects are evident with any emotions save those of

loathing and disgust. It was no very natural thing for Jonah to look

with any sort of tenderness on that great, debauched, besotted Nineveh,

reeking in its vileness, foul with the accumulated moral filth of many

generations. Out of a man's own righteousness, too, his jealousy for

God and his reverence for goodness, there may grow a certain hardness

and, from very loyalty to God, it may not be easy to look with

compassionate eyes upon the transgressor. We cannot but remember that

every blessed purpose of the Kingdom is delayed by sin. By this black

impediment every golden dream of devout saints, of moral and spiritual

reformers is held back from happy fulfilment. It is difficult, indeed,

to feel pitiful when the heart for Christ's sake is longing to behold

the glories He died to bring to pass and sees those glories thus

wantonly postponed. Yes, the note of pity is often hard to strike.

The more we think of all that is involved the more emphasis we throw

into the question--how has it to be done?

The truth is that pity for such a service needs to be earnestly and

constantly cultivated. It only follows as the result of spiritual

processes in the preacher's own soul. It is not the mere outflowing of

a natural kindliness of disposition, of inborn good nature. It is more

than mere sloppy sentimentality. That kind of pity, if you may call

it by such a name, never tells the truth excepting when it is pleasant,

never preaches a sermon of rebuke, never reasons concerning "judgment

to come." There is no such word as Hell in its vocabulary; there is no

accusation in its programme. The pity we mean blazes up into moral

anger, smites and wounds, and compassionates the while. This pity

requires cultivation. Quoting an old phrase, "it never grew in

Nature's garden." An understanding of men is absolutely essential to

attainment herein. Some one has said that "if we knew all we would

pity all." God does know all and does pity all. The compassion of

Jesus was aided by His knowledge of the multitude; so must ours be. It

is a terrible story--this story of transgression--but those who know it

best water it with tears. Nothing is served by closing our eyes to

facts, though the temptation is great to exercise the mistaken charity

of declining to know. Is there no danger of a cowardly refusal of

vision, of making the fellowship of saints a hiding place whither we

can escape from the sights and shames of the world? Are we quite

guiltless of seeking in the Christian Society a forgetfulness of the

things that wither and blast human souls without? Do none of us make

of the Church "a little garden walled around," where the sound of

crying and of cursing breaks not upon our peace as we dream our happy

dreams? We are sent to look steadfastly upon the sore, to behold and

analyse the very truth, for it is in the measure in which our souls are

pierced that we compassionate.

But the greatest school for the learning of pitifulness is yonder at

the feet of Jesus. In His company hearts grow hard to sin and tender

to sinners. "Is there any sorrow like unto My sorrow?" He cries, and

we know that His sorrow was not for Himself, but for those who spurned

Him. "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," He prays,

and, lo! the cry is for His very murderers, and the music of it melts

our spirit toward the transgressor while the transgression becomes more

hateful in our eyes. Where do you abhor sin as you abhor it upon the

slopes of Calvary? Where do you pity sinners as you pity them there?

There is the fountain of judgment. There is the fountain of


Yes, the greatest school of pitifulness is in the presence of Christ.

From Him, in Temple court and city street, on mountain brow and

sea-shore, in the wilderness and in the domestic circle of Bethany, the

preacher catches that new tone which shall give his accusation

commendation and power. But there is another teacher, still, who will

greatly help to fix the lesson in his heart if only he be heard. That

teacher is Memory. Memory is always waiting to whisper in the

preacher's ear. "And such were some of you," writes St. Paul to the

Corinthians, "but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are

justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the spirit of our God."

Ah! the preacher, himself is but a sinner saved by grace. There was a

time when he, also, was in the far country, when he, also, was a

rebel against law and love, when even he was "lost already." Can he

forget those days of darkness and of shame? Can he forget how the

warning ambassador of his hitherto despised Redeemer came to him?

Can he forget the mire and the clay and the horrible pit from which a

strong hand brought him forth? Let him "think on these things" as he

looks upon his congregation, as he rebukes their contumacy. Let him

remember that he has come into the pulpit only by the steps of mercy,

by the long-suffering grace of a sin-pardoning God.

Here, then, is an essential part of the preacher's training--the

training of his own heart to tenderness. If he fail in giving

attention to this, all other education will be worse than fruitless.

The age needs the pitiful Church. The age and the Church need the

pitiful ministry. This is not to say that men look to the pulpit for

nothing but softly spoken indulgences. Conscience has taught them that

the message should hurt where hurt is salutary. They will not

recognise as kindness the withholding, or the dilution of any truth.

On the other hand they give to the motive of the preacher who does

these things a less flattering name. They will say--have we not heard

the criticism?--that the preacher is afraid to be faithful, afraid to

offend for reasons that are selfish and cowardly. The offence of

unwelcome truth is covered when that truth is watered by a preacher's


So let us preach--declaring "the whole counsel" concerning sin for

pity's sake, preaching the whole truth concerning salvation too.

Something is in our mind to ask concerning our presentation of this

last-named portion of our message:--Are we always quite faithful as to

what we call the conditions of salvation? In the presentation of these

conditions great skill and great care are required. It is so easy to

under--or over--emphasise, so easy, out of jealousy for God, to make

the way too hard or, out of a desire to win men, to make it too easy.

Perhaps in the latter possibility lies, in our time, the greater

danger. Do we always ask for penitence as unmistakably as we ought?

There should be repentance "toward God" as well as "faith in our Lord

Jesus Christ." We may at least suggest the question:--Whether we do

not sometimes call for the latter, saying too little of the former.

Again, in calling for faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, is it not easy to

appear to demand a mere belief in historic facts when what is required

is the trustful surrender of the soul to the Redeemer? We have seen

fifty people hold up their hands, at the request of a preacher, to

signify their turning to God, and we have noted that no outward sign of

deep emotion accompanied the act. We have watched a multitude pass

through an inquiry room where, though inquirers were many, tears were

few. That "there are diversities of operations" we know. "Old times

are changed, old manners gone." All this we admit, and, perhaps, we

should not demand to see again such things as Time has cast behind him.

But, oh! those were great days when the returning rebel smote upon his

breast and would not so much as lift up his eyes unto heaven, as with

sobs and groans, he cried, "God be merciful to me, a sinner." Those

were glorious scenes when, in one and the same hour, he broke for ever

with old habits, old companionships, old loves and, with eyes still

streaming went forth exclaiming, "'Tis done, the great transaction's


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