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On our present IGNORANCE of the WAYS of GOD.
JOHN, xiii. 7.
Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
THESE words of our Lord were occasioned by a
circumstance in his behaviour which appeared mysterious to his disciples. When about to celebrate his last passover, he meant to give them an instructive lesson of condescension and humility. The mode which he chose for delivering this instruction, was the emblematical action of washing their feet. When Simon Peter saw his Master addressing himself to the performance of so menial an office, he exclaims with the greatest surprise, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Our Lord replies in the words of the text, What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. My behaviour, in this instance, may seem "unaccountable to you at present; but you shall "afterwards receive a satisfactory explanation of the "intent of that symbol which I now employ."
The expressions of a Divine person on this occasion, can very naturally and properly be applied to
various instances, where the conduct of Providence, in the administration of human affairs, remains dark and mysterious to us. What I do thou knowest not now. We must for a while be kept in ignorance of the designs of Heaven. But this ignorance, though necessary at present, is not always to continue. A time shall come when a commentary shall be afforded on all that is now obscure; when the veil of mystery shall be removed; and full satisfaction be given to every rational mind. Thou shalt know hereafter. This is the doctrine which I propose to illustrate in the following discourse.
I. OUR Saviour's words lead us to observe, that many things in the conduct of Providence are at present mysterious and unintelligible. The truth of this observation will not be called in question. It is indeed very readily admitted by all; and ever since the beginning of the world has been the foundation of many a complaint, and of much scepticism concerning the government of Heaven.-That human affairs are not left to roll on according to mere chance, and that Providence interposes in them to a certain degree, is made evident by various tokens to every candid mind. But the perplexity and trouble of the thoughtful enquirer arises from observing that Providence appears not to pursue any regular or consistent plan. An unaccountable mixture of light and darkness presents itself to us, when we attempt to trace the affairs of the world up to any wise and righteous administration. We see justice and order begun; but on many occasions they seem to be deserted. The ray of light which we had traced for a while. suddenly forsakes us; and, where we had looked for
the continuance of order, we meet with confusion and disappointment.-For instance; when we examine the constitution of the human mind, we discern evident marks of its being framed with a view to favour and reward virtue. Conscience is endowed with signal authority to check vice. It brings home uneasiness and remorse to the bad; and it soothes and supports the righteous with self-approbation and peace. The ordinary course of human things is made to coincide in some degree with this constitution of our nature. The worthy and the good are, in general, honoured and esteemed. He that walketh uprightly is, for the most part, found to walk surely. The chief misfortunes that befal us in life can be traced to some vices or follies which we have committed; and it almost never happens but the sinner's own wickedness is made sooner or later to reprove him, and his backslidings to correct him.
All this carries the impress of a just Providence, of a wise and a benevolent administration of the uniWe cannot avoid perceiving that the Almighty hath set his throne for judgment. At the same time, when we pursue our enquiries, the Almighty appears to hold back the face of his throne, and to spread his cloud upon it.* For in looking abroad into the world, how many scenes do we behold which are far from corresponding with any ideas we could form of the government of Heaven? Many nations of the earth we see lying in a state of barbarity and misery; sunk in such gross ignorance as degrades them below the rank of rational beings; or abandoned to be the prey of cruel oppression and tyranny. When we
look to the state of individuals around us, we hear the lamentations of the unhappy on every hand. We meet with weeping parents, and mourning friends. We behold the young cut off in the flower of their days, and the aged left desolate in the midst of sorrows. The useful and virtuous are swept away, and the worthless left to flourish. The lives of the best men are often filled with discouragements and disappointed hopes. Merit languishes in neglected solitude; and vanity and presumption gain the admiration of the world. From the scourge of calumny, and from the hand of violence, the injured look up to God as the Avenger of their cause; but often they look up in vain. He is a God that hideth himself. He dwelleth, as to them, in the secret place of darkness; or, if he dwelleth in light, it is in light to which no man can approach. Resignation may seal up their lips; but in silence, they drop the tear and mourn while they adore.
SUCH, it must not be dissembled, are the difficulties which encounter us when we attempt to trace the present ways of God. At the same time, upon reflection, we may be satisfied that causes can be assigned for things appearing in this unfavourable light: and that there is no reason to be surprised at the Divine conduct being mysterious at present.
The monarchy of the universe is a great and complicated system. It comprehends numberless generations of men, who are brought forth to act their parts for purposes unknown to us. It includes two worlds at once; the world that now is, and which is only a small portion of existence; and a world that is to come, which endures for eternity. To us, no more than
the beginnings of things are visible. We see only some broken parts of a great whole. We trace but a few links of that chain of being, which, by secret connections, binds together the present and the future. Such knowledge is afforded us as is sufficient for supplying the exigencies and wants of our present state; but it does no more. Peeping abroad from a dark corner of the universe, we attempt in vain to explore the counsels that govern the world. It is an attempt to sound an unfathomable deep with a scanty line; and with a feeble wing to ascend above the stars. In any complicated work, even of human art, it is found necessary to be acquainted with the design of the whole, in order to judge of the fitness of its parts. In a scheme so complex as the administration of the world, where all the parts refer to one another, and where what is seen is often subordinate to what is invisible, how is it possible but our judgments must be often erroneous, and our complaints illfounded? If a peasant or a cottager be incapable of judging of the government of a mighty empire, is it surprising that we should be at a loss concerning the conduct of the Almighty towards his creatures? What I do thou knowest not now.
BUT, on this argument still more can be said for our satisfaction. We are to observe, that complete information respecting the ways of God, not only was not to be expected here; but, moreover, that it would have been hurtful, if granted to us in our present state. It would have proved inconsistent with that state; with the actions which we have to perform in it, and the duties we have to fulfil. It would indeed have overthrown the whole design of