The Peril of Accepting Second Best – J. Stuart Holden (historic sermon 1874-1934)
“He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their souls.” –Psalm 106:15
We frequently make the mistake of limiting the call of the Gospel to the initial alternatives which it presents. It sets before us Christ and His kingdom as against the world and its attractions; and urges upon us the necessity of choice. Indeed, all its pressure is directed toward making clear the fact that choice is unavoidable; and all its influence is exerted toward enabling us to choose worthily, courageously, and savingly.
But when the will, conscience-prompted and stirred into action by the high emotion of the heart, has made the eternal choice, and has opened up life to the reign and rule of the Savior, only the first step in the Christian life has been taken. There still ranges before us all the pilgrim-path way along which we must patiently plod in the comradeship of our Lord. And it is just along that pathway that there lurks the peril of the second best. For life is one long series of choices to those who are not the less but the more reasonable and responsible beings for having united them selves to Christ. It is inevitable that choices must be daily made by them between the supreme and the secondary, between the lofty and the low, between self-pleasing and God-pleasing. And these choices are of tremendous importance, for their result is to start or to strengthen springs of moral issue both in our own lives and in the lives of others. We need, therefore, to be aware of the ever-present necessity of watchfulness and wariness, if we would avoid that which has brought shipwreck to many a nobly-begun life. The foe is not only strong, but amazingly subtle and specious. Now the greatest and commonest danger is not that of turning aside from the path way of life to roam in the fields of sin. There are few who are condemned in such apostasy as the choice of the manifestly bad. But to us all the temptation comes with startling frequency to choose the better instead of the best; to choose things which may be morally worthy considered by themselves; things which may have a great deal to commend them, but which are not the will of God for us.
And yet so far as the practical effect in our lives is concerned we might almost as well choose the openly evil. For by committing ourselves to any course than that of absolute fidelity to the highest, we put ourselves hopelessly out of touch with God, Who often gives us our desire but sends leanness also into our souls. And that deterioration of life which ensues, and which eventually disables us from even recognizing anything higher than that which we have gone in for, is the awful Nemesis of the choice of a second best.
This is forcefully illustrated in the case of Israel, to whom these words originally refer. God s purpose for the Israelites was that they should have no earthly sovereign. He Himself purposed to be their Lord and King. The uniqueness of a theocracy was de signed as part of His educative process of the nations. Israel was to be the world’s object-lesson. But Israel rebelled. They said to the prophet of God, “Make us a king. We want to be like, and not unlike the other nations. We want a monarchy with all its trappings and splendors. We want a king who will lead us to battle and give us that place among the nations from which a theocratic government excludes us.” All of which is of course eloquent of the fact that they had failed in faith, and had lost any national love for God which their unique history of His goodness to them had ever inspired. God, however, did not leave them to their own devices nor cast them off. He said in effect “Very well. Make them a king. They are not choosing the best as I have offered it to them; but I will let them have their self-chosen second best. It is the only way of teaching them their folly and of bringing them ultimately to know themselves and Me.” And the whole of that nation s subsequent history shows the peril of the second best.
They were, for instance, so situated geographically that God alone could be sufficient for their preservation. On the north was the great kingdom of Syria; and on the south was Egypt. Sooner or later it was inevitable that these two, ambitious of world-power, should come into conflict; and Israel was the buffer-state which must bear the brunt of the battle. Whenever it should be waged, the war must be carried out for the most part on Israel s territory. Therefore it was more important to Israel than to any other nation under the sun that she should be God-protected. But she chose otherwise, and with what result? God s purpose was frustrated. Disastrous war with all its attendant horrors came upon her. The nation, instead of be coming the world s teacher, became the world s disciple. The land was distracted with internal dissensions and unrest. Fitful prosperity attended the flickering flame of worship. Until eventually, we come upon the sad story of the nation s captivity. And although a restoration was made later, and a renewed opportunity afforded her, Israel is to-day a scattered nation over all the face of the earth an abiding testimony to the peril of choosing the second best.
And not only is this set forth in national but in personal life also. Take, for instance, the case of Solomon, whose choice of wisdom when the opportunity of asking what he would was afforded him is often acclaimed as being an example of the highest and worthiest choosing. But was it so? He chose wisdom that he might become a great ruler, and make his kingdom a great power. He became thereby strong, rich, and successful and he became a cast away! Had he chosen God s best, he would have asked for holiness of heart, purity of mind, nobility of purpose, and constancy of devotion. Then the sad, awful story of the end of Solomon s reign had never been written. This is the peril which is round about us all, the peril of the second best. For God certainly allows such to those who will not have His best. He does not leave us when we fail in this matter of making the choices by which life s actions and directions are largely governed. Indeed it is on this account that the second best leads often to sore discipline and to the smart and sting of unexpected and unwelcome experiences. The second best which God allows us in our folly and willfulness to choose, is often the kindest way He can take of showing us our own hearts and of redeeming us from their waywardness. Leanness of soul is always the consequence of self-will. But it sometimes also expresses the love of an interested God.
Now if these illustrations of a principle of action have any value at all for us, it surely is in their emphasis on the necessity of adopting and maintaining an attitude of entire consecration toward Christ, which declares itself in unflinching choice of the highest in every moral and spiritual crisis.
It is a commonplace to say that our choices attest our character, and that the things to which a man s mind involuntarily turns shows what kind of man he is. It is true to add that these same choices make the character they proclaim; and at the same time silently and inexorably determine destiny. The seriousness and solemnity of life is that every day we live we are tested as to the vital foundations and inspirations of life. For to every one of us, and almost daily, comes the temptation to adopt lower and unworthier standards than those of Christ s ethic. We are tempted to take courses in which material gain and advantage are uppermost. We are tempted to order life so as to secure present advantage. We are tempted to diminish life s dimensions by making ease, comfort, and prosperity its chief end. In short, we are tempted to take the way of the world rather than the way of Christ; to go with the multitude and not with the Master; to refuse God s will in favor of some second best.
I am constantly meeting people who ask, “May I do this or that thing and still be a Christian? Is it possible for me to harmonize my Christian profession with this or that pursuit? May I not make the best of both worlds?” And their peril is that in their endeavor to do so, they are making choice of a second best which will certainly recoil upon them in undreamt-of evil. Not that God leaves them ; for He never does that. But He cannot do otherwise than alter the expression of His solicitudes in allowing the thing chosen to correct their self-will, and in using the leanness which comes into their souls to lead them back to the place of whole-hearted obedience to Himself.
How often, too, is this perilous choice of a second best seen in the refusal of men to openly confess Christ, even though they truly trust Him in their hearts. They say, “I will certainly be His disciple and worship Him as my Lord. But I don t intend that there should be anything conspicuous or extravagant about my witness to Him.” And in their refusal of that close identification with Christ to which the Gospel pledges His followers, and which is really of moral value to His cause in the world, they are satisfying themselves with a perilous second best. They are the people who have a mere kindly sympathy with the enterprises of His kingdom, but whose hearts are really in the things of the world; who, when confronted with the call to strenuous service which comes to every professed follower of the Savior, decline its glories for the sake of the ease and pleasure which would need to be sacrificed. Amongst them are those young people who are refusing the call to work in the Regions Beyond in favor of the brighter attractions and inducements of home, and who justify their choice by all kinds of specious reasoning. When in reality they have just fallen into the deadly peril of the second best.
It is not too much to say that all such are laying up for themselves an experience of leanness, dissatisfaction, and disillusion which, when seen in other lives, is one of the most terrible warnings of life. For the choice of the second best, involving as it does the outrage of conscience and the silencing of our best instincts, always means also the forfeiture of the closest fellowship with God, and the loss of that divine partnership of power in which God reinforces and uses men to His glory. How many men has one known who, when confronted with the stern duty of making a determining choice, have unconsciously bartered all that makes life worth while by giving their allegiance and devotion to a specious second best. They become prosperous, but their souls are almost petrified. They gain the world, but lose all true worth. They acquire importance, but lose influence. Oh, how lean do their souls become! How little of true joy, how little of divine glory, and how little of real power do their lives manifest. How vividly do they illustrate the peril of the second best, and how warningly. Just an unwillingness to pay the price of God s best, just a subtle reasoning that
because the choice is not of the unholy and the unclean it is therefore justified, just a successful controversy with conscience and a denial of its imperious claims, and the perilous reversion is entered upon.
When two lines are in exact parallel they may be produced to infinity without increasing by a hair s breadth the distance between them. Let one of them, however, deflect in the slightest degree and then the further they are produced the greater becomes the distance between them. There is power in the smallest difference of direction to separate them by a whole universe of distance. And so is it in the all-important matter of choice. To turn from the highest for aught else, however slight the difference between them, is to make ultimately certain a gulf of separation between the soul and God which can only be bridged by divine grace and the bitter penitence of a renewed life.
It may be, and most often is, a sharp test and challenge of faith to apprehend what is God s best; for its recognition brings the immediate responsibility of response. Just as it was a searching test of Israel s faith to be called to stand alone among the nations, to be God-governed, God-guided, and God-possessed, so this necessity of declining a mere second best is certainly a test to us. Always to follow the guiding light, always to submit every judgment to the will of God, always to take the pathway of His glory amid all the intersecting and perplexing paths that open before us, is the most severe test which life holds. But happy indeed is the man whose courage does not falter, whose ideals are not dethroned, whose heart is not traitorous to conscience and to God in the hour of his trial. Now it follows upon the simple acceptance
of the fact of God s interested care and personal providence, that since His best (which is of course just another name for His will) is the design of His love, all our capabilities are fitted for just that thing and for no other. I mean that He originally made us with a view to receiving His own greatest glory in our lives; and endued us with just those aptitudes which make that possible.
When He made us of the peculiar personal character which each one bears, and set us in the mold of circumstances which have all along influenced our development, it was with the object of fitting us for the fulfillment of His best plan for us. And we mar by misuse, and forfeit by disuse, every endowment diverted from its original purpose. To illustrate from the lower sphere of mere physical things: I know a man whom God manifestly made for an open-air life, for hard work. He has a body which by inherited need demands contact with the soil and strenuous manual toil. By a strange reversal of the wheel of fortune, and (as those who care for him most affirm) a stranger misreading of its divine message and meaning, it became
possible for him to live a life of ease, and to have all his needs supplied without any sort of exertion on his part. The consequence is that the man once strong and vigorous has become a nervous hypochondriac, a kind of physical derelict. God meant him for one thing and he chose another in the hour of his supreme test; with the consequence that his powers have deteriorated and his capabilities have almost atrophied.
There is no tragedy which is to be so carefully avoided as that of living for lower things than God intended us for. Such a life, if it finally enters Heaven at all, can only do so crippled, dwarfed, and stunted. For all of our present life and training is but preparation for eternal service. What we lose now by our own choice we shall never regain by any arbitrary act of divine compensation. The bare possibility of eternal restriction of usefulness is the strongest warning of all against the peril of the second best.
A nearer consideration, too, is the fact which common observation attests, that the choice of the second best always brings impoverishment of present influence, and entirely lowers the dimensions of life. For if a man would wield highest influence he must live for the highest things. One knows of professedly Christian parents whose choice of the second best is witnessed in the unsatisfactory lives of their children. Instead of seeking first the kingdom of God, their home-life in its outlook and ordering has been largely influenced by the world, by the conventions of society and not by the convictions of the heart. And their children have taken their measure of God from the distorted reflection of Him which the parents have presented. The unavailing remorse which invariably follows is tragic indeed; and the unanswered cry for an opportunity to reverse the unworthy choice is an agony beyond words. The man who wakes up to the folly of his choice seldom finds a place of repentance, though he seeks it carefully and with tears. Such is the inexorable law of life.
But over against all these warning things is the ever-present inspiration of our Lord’s own life the strongest appeal to our hearts to choose the highest. For as we read the record of the days of His flesh^we see Him as the One Who always consistently chose God s best. “I came not to do Mine own will ” that is the second best “but the will of Him that sent Me” that is the best! “I came not to be ministered unto ” the second best “but to minister” the best! “I came not to call the righteous” merely the second best, for they would all respond” but I came to call sinners “the best! “I came not to send peace on earth “the second best” but I came to send the sword of conflict and conquest” the best!
And again at the end of His life, when the cup was heavy and bitter and full, we hear Him in the garden still true to the governing purpose of His redeeming life “Nevertheless, not as I will” the second best “but as Thou wilt.” And choosing God s best, He drank the cup to the last dregs. And now for us all, God s best is expressed in Christ s call, “Follow thou Me.” It all comes to this, that consistently, loyally, courageously to follow Him is to choose the highest in all life s alternatives.
God has His best things for the folk
Who dare to stand the test;
God has His second choice for those
Who will not have the best.
It is not always open sin
That risks the promised rest ;
The better sometimes is the foe
That keeps us from the best.
There s scarcely one but vaguely wants
In some way to be blessed ;
Tis not a blessing, Lord, I seek,
I want Thy very best.
I want in this short life of mine,
As much as may be pressed
Of service true for God and man ;
Help me to have Thy best.
I want amid the victor throng
To have my name confessed,
And hear my Saviour say at last,
“Well done! you took the best.”
Give me, my Lord, Thy highest choice,
Though others take the rest.
Their good things have no charm for me,
Since I have found Thy best.”
For this is the choice which results in abundant grace and abounding glory!