By Alexander MacLaren
Now it strikes me that we may gain some instruction if we throw together the various objects to which in Scripture, and especially in this letter, we are exhorted to direct this virtue of diligence, and mark how comprehensive its range, and how, for all beauty of character and progress in the Divine life, it is regarded as an indispensable condition. Let us then look, first, at the homely excellence that is the master-key to all Christian maturity and grace, and then at the various fields in which we are to apply it.
I. Now as to the homely virtue itself, ‘giving all diligence.’
We all know what ‘diligence’ means, but it is worth while to point out that the original meaning of the word is not so much diligence as haste. It is employed, for instance, to describe the eager swiftness with which the Virgin went to Elizabeth after the angel’s salutation and annunciation. It is the word employed to describe the murderous hurry with which Herodias came rushing in to the king to demand John the Baptist’s head. It is the word with which the Apostle, left solitary in his prison, besought his sole trusty, companion Timothy to ‘make haste so as to come to him before winter.’ (see notes on 2 Timothy 4:21) (see excellent sermon 2 Timothy 4:21 Come Before Winter) Thus, the first notion in the word is haste, which crowds every moment with continuous effort, and lets no hindrances entangle the feet of the runner. Wise haste has sometimes to be content to go slowly. ‘Raw haste’ is ‘half sister to delay.’ When haste degenerates into hurry, and becomes agitation, it is weakness, not strength; it turns out superficial work, which has usually to be pulled to pieces and done over again, and it is sure to be followed by reaction of languid idleness. But the less we hurry the more should we hasten in running the race set before us.
But with this caution against spurious haste, we cannot too seriously lay to heart the solemn motives to wise and well-directed haste. The moments granted to any of us are too few and precious to let slip unused. The field to be cultivated is too wide and the possible harvest for the toiler too abundant, and the certain crop of weeds in the sluggard’s garden too poisonous, to allow dawdiing to be considered a venial fault. Little progress will be made if we do not work as feeling that ‘the night is far spent, the day is at hand,’ or as feeling the apparently opposite but really identical conviction, ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me while it is day. The night cometh when no man can work.’ The day of full salvation, repose, and blessedness is near dawning. The night of weeping, the night of toil, is nearly past. By both aspects of this brief life we should be spurred to haste.
The first element, then, in Christian diligence is economy of time as of most precious treasure, and the avoidance, as of a pestilence, of all procrastination. ‘To-morrow and to-morrow’ is the opiate with which sluggards and cowards set conscience asleep, and as each to-morrow becomes to-day it proves as empty of effort as its predecessors, and, when it has become yesterday, it adds one more to the solemn company of wasted opportunities which wait for a man at the bar of God. ‘All their yesterdays have lighted’ such idlers ‘to dusty death,’ because in each they were saying, ‘to-morrow we will begin the better course,’ instead of beginning it to-day. ‘Now is the accepted time.’ ‘Wherefore, giving all haste, add to your faith.’
Another of the phases of the virtue, which Peter here regards as sovereign, is represented in our translation of the word by ‘earnestness,’ which is the parent of diligence. Earnestness is the sentiment, of which diligence is the expression. So the word is frequently translates. Hence we gather that no Christian growth is possible unless a man gives his mind to it. Dawdlers will do nothing. There must be fervour if there is to be growth. The heated bar of iron will go through the obstacle which the cold one will never penetrate. We must gather ourselves together under the impulse of an all-pervading and noble earnestness, too deep to be demonstrative, and which does not waste itself in noise, but settles down steadily to work. The engine that is giving off its steam in white puffs is not working at its full power. When we are most intent we are most silent. Earnestness is dumb, and therefore it is terrible.
Again we come to the more familiar translation of the word as in the text, ‘Diligence’ is the panacea for all diseases of the Christian life. It is the homely virtue that leads to all success. It is a great thing to be convinced of this, that there are no mysteries about the conditions of healthy Christian living, but that precisely the same qualities which lead to victory in any career to which a man sets himself do so in this; that, on the one hand, we shall never fail if in earnest and saving the crumbs of moments, we give ourselves to the work of Christian growth; and that on the other hand/no fine emotions, no select moments of rapture and communion will ever avail to take the place of the dogged perseverance and prosaic hard work which wins in all other fields; and wins, and is the only thing that does win, in this one too. If you want to be a strong Christian — that is to say, a happy man — you must bend your back to the work and ‘give all diligence.’ Nobody goes to heaven in his sleep. No man becomes a vigorous Christian by any other course than ‘giving all diligence.’ It is a very lowly virtue. It is like some of the old wives’ recipes for curing diseases with some familiar herb that grows at every cottage door. People will not have that, but if you bring them some medicine from far away, very rare and costly, and suggest to them some course out of the beaten rut of ordinary, honest living, they will jump at that. Quackery always deals in mysteries and rare things. The great physician cures diseases with simples that grow everywhere. A pennyworth of some familiar root will cure an illness that nothing else will touch. It is a homely virtue, but if in its homeliness we practised it, this Church and our own souls would wear a different face from what it and they do to-day.
II. Note the wide field of action for this homely grace.
On the one hand there are all great gifts and boundless possibilities as to life and godliness, and on the other diligence as the condition on which all these shall actually become ours, and, passing into our lives, will there produce all these graces which the Apostle goes on to enumerate. The condition is nothing recondite, nothing hard either to understand or to practise, but it is simply that commonplace, humdrum virtue of diligence. If we will put it forth, then the gifts that God has given, and which are not really ours unless we put it forth, will pass into the very substance of our being, and unfold themselves according to the life that is in them; even the life that is in Jesus Christ Himself, in all forms of beauty and sweetness and power and blessedness. ‘Diligence’ makes faith fruitful. Diligence makes God’s gifts ours.
Then, again, the Apostle gives an even more remarkable view of the possible field for this all-powerful diligence when he bids his readers exercise it in order to ‘make their calling and election sure.’ Peter’s first letter shows that he believed that Christians were ‘chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.’ But for all that he is not a bit afraid of putting the other side of the truth, and saying to us in effect. ‘We cannot read the eternal decrees of God nor know the names written in the Book of Life. These are mysteries above us. But if you want to be sure that you are one of the called and chosen, work and you will get the assurance.’ The confirmation of the ‘call,’ of the ‘election,’ both in fact and in my consciousness depends upon my action. The ‘diligence,’ of which the Apostle thinks such great things, reaches, as it were, a hand up into heaven and binds a man to that great unrevealed, electing purpose of God. If we desire that upon our Christian lives there shall shine the perpetual sunshine of an unclouded confidence that we have the love and the favour of God, and that for us there is no condemnation, but only ‘acceptance in the beloved,’ the short road to it is the well-known and trite path of toil in the Christian life.
Still further, one of the other writers of the New Testament gives us another field in which this virtue may expatiate, when the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts to diligence, in order to attain ‘the full assurance of hope.’ If we desire that our path should be brightened by the clear vision of our blessed future beyond the grave, and above the stars, and Within the bosom of God, the road to that happy assurance and sunny, cloudless confidence in a future of rest and fellowship with God lies simply here-work! as Christian men should, whilst it is called to-day.
The last of the fields in which this virtue finds exercise is expressed by our letter, when Peter says, ‘Seeing that we look for such things, let us be diligent, that we may be found of Him in peace without spot, and-blameless.’ If we are to be ‘found in peace,’ we must be ‘found spotless,’ and if we are to be ‘found spotless’ we must be ‘diligent.’ ‘If that servant begin to say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and to be slothful, and to eat and drink with the drunken, the lord of that servant will come in an hour when he is not aware.’ On the other hand, ‘who is that faithful servant whom his lord hath set ruler over his household? Blessed is that servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing?’ Doing so, and diligently doing it, ‘he shall be found in peace. ‘
What a beautiful ideal of Christian life results from putting together all these items. A fruitful faith, a sure calling, a cloudless hope, a peaceful welcome at last! The Old Testament says, ‘The hand of the diligent maketh rich’; the New Testament promises unchangeable riches to the same hand. The Old Testament says, ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his business, he shall stand before kings.’ The New Testament assures us that the noblest form of that promise shall be fulfilled in the Christian man’s communion with his Lord here, and perfected when the diligent disciple shall ‘be found of Him in peace,’ and stand before the King in that day, accepted and himself a king.