Plowing and looking back
"No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is
fit for the Kingdom of God." A few weeks ago in a time of transit troubles, a
brother who earns his daily bread as a plowman started to walk to the Sunday
morning meeting. This involved a tramp of nine miles, and, but for the kindly
forethought of another brother who drove out to meet him, he would have had to
walk the entire distance. After the meeting he quite unconsciously presented me
with this article, neatly packed up in a single sentence. Speaking of the words
quoted at the head of the chapter he said: "Only a plowman can understand those
words in their full meaning. While he keeps his eyes fixed on the mark at the
other side of the field, he can plow a straight line; but if he looks back even
for a second he misses the mark and the line grows crooked."
This presented a new thought in connection with the well-known
figure of speech. I had always thought of the looking back, as meaning the
wandering of desire toward old associations and old ambitions. The full meaning
seemed to be that when once a man is enlightened and starts work for Christ
there must be no tardiness and dragging of feet. If he tires of the work and
desires to return to his former darkness he is not fit for the Kingdom of God.
The plowman with his technical knowledge and experience sees a deeper meaning.
He must have no doubt as to the object at the end of his line, and he must keep
his eyes riveted on the distant mark. If he loses sight of that even for a
moment his plowing is spoiled.
It has been suggested that in the East two thousand years ago
plowing was only a primitive scratching of the ground in which the straight
furrow would not be of much importance, and that consequently we should not draw
from the figure of speech a meaning based on modern methods. This is not a valid
objection, however, if the meaning drawn is helpful. In dealing with ordinary
writers we must certainly keep our interpretation of their work within the
limits and practice of the time when it was written. Ordinary writing is very
soon out of date and the figures of speech are often unintelligible. It is
different with the Bible. It comes from God, it is never out of date, and it
reveals prescience in so many matters that we need not be surprised if even its
metaphors suit the modern world better than the ancient. If the servants of God
find help from a possible meaning of scripture, the helpful thought was there
even though no one saw it for two thousand years. "Known unto God are all his
works from the beginning of the world."
Surely the thought we are considering is a helpful one. It is
not enough that we should keep our desires from wandering back to the world.
Like the plowman drawing out his first furrow, we must keep our eyes on the
distant mark. If we lose sight of our final objective -- either by looking back
at our own past history or by too critical a survey of other men's plowing, our
line will certainly not be straight. We shall help our fellow plowmen more by
setting an example of good work than by shouting at them; and surely our desire
is to help.
The use of the phrase "final objective" suggests a further
extension of the figure. The skilful plowman may be able to draw a straight line
to the single object on which his eyes are fixed. The beginner needs further
help and often finds it necessary to put a series of marks all in line. This is
the principle of "the limited objective", the value of which has been
demonstrated repeatedly. Instead of having only the one ideal which may
sometimes seem so far removed from human frailty that progress is impossible, we
have a series of limited objectives all in line with the final goal and leading
to it. The inexperienced plowman can in this way maintain a straight line. For
him the limited objectives are necessary. In the absence of such aids he might
unconsciously waver to right or left even though his eyes were fixed firmly on
the final mark. And all the while there is the danger of a momentary lapse; a
glance to right or left even though he does not look back. A very little
distraction may spoil the work of the inexperienced plowman.
With the limited objectives to assist him the work is easier.
He can see the final mark with the minor marks all in line with it, and as the
stages are successively reached and passed there is a consciousness of progress
along the true line.
In the plowing for Christ we are none of us experts. We need
all the help we can find to keep the line straight, and the principle of the
limited objective leading to the final goal is of vital importance for us.
Christ has provided us with some of these aids. In the liberty we have in Christ
it is possible to find many more. In our meetings, our reading and writing, in
the more private efforts which we only mention to the closest friends, and in
mental struggles which we perhaps do not mention to any man, we have limited
objectives. If we have planned our work well these waymarks help us. There
should be no mistake as to the final ambition of life but we need some minor
ideals to lead us to it. If the Lord delays his coming what are our immediate
objectives for this year, this month, this week and this day?
Let us here note that apart from the clear instructions given
in the Bible we have liberty. We can set up our own marks. It is no part of our
duty to mark out the furrows for other plowmen, although it is assuredly
Christ-like to help them when we can. But while we are in large measure at
liberty to choose our own waymarks, when once they are chosen it is obviously
the right thing to observe them. When the plowman has marked out his course he
is surely a foolish or careless man if he ignores the marking. We are not bound
by any humanly devised system of reading Scripture, but if we decide that a
certain system will be helpful to us we should surely be foolish if we failed to
maintain it. Beyond the general warning not to neglect the assembly of the
saints we have no scriptural rule as to the number of meetings we should attend.
In some towns, where there is a meeting of some kind almost every night, it
might not be wise to attend each one. When we have made our choice, however, as
to what meetings will help us, it is the part of true workmen to be as regular
in our observance as circumstances will permit.
The writing of this article has been interrupted by attendance
at a week-night meeting. It was a helpful meeting, and can surely rank as a true
limited objective in the straight line for the Kingdom of God. A fortnight ago I
missed the meeting, with no better excuse than a complete forgetfulness until it
was too late. The activities which drove it from the mind were healthful and
good in themselves; but that does not alter the fact that a limited objective
was missed. The plowman had set up a stake a little way ahead to keep his line
true and then he forgot all about it. The most serious feature of such a lapse
is that it prepares the way for further lapses. That is how brethren go astray.
Whoever heard of one who, having once been enlightened, turned away merely as
the result of a careful examination of the Truth?
We never knew one of Christ's plowmen to gaze straight ahead
and decide that the final objective was not worth while. He begins to waver
through missing perhaps the least important of the limited objectives. Thus he
may set up marks of his own that are not in line with the final object.
Presently when he looks ahead there is no final object visible and he may soon
be persuaded that there never was one. His line has deviated and he is looking
in the wrong direction.
Perhaps there was a time in the Brotherhood when we were too
little prepared for the prolongation of mortality. It seemed unnecessary to
prepare much for battling with a world that was so soon to pass. We are nearer
to the end now but there is much more education in worldly wisdom. Sometimes,
while older brethren are overworked, the young ones are too busy to render
assistance -- special studies, the passing of examinations, the securing of
necessary degrees. These are all limited objectives and unfortunately the final
object to which they stand related is limited, too. But although these ambitions
bounded by mortality are not the most obvious guides to the Kingdom of God,
there is no reason why they should lead anyone astray. Keep them all in the true
line and then they may be even used as helps. Here is a rule for all of us to
observe. We are sure to have objects in mortal life in things not essential but
not forbidden; not the "one thing needful" but still free from offence so long
as they are kept in their proper place. We may desire to pass an examination, or
to improve the home, or to give our children a better chance in the world than
we had ourselves. These are all limited objectives. Let us take care that we
keep them all in the true line, so that even if they fail to help they will not
Sometimes progress is stopped by doubts as to what shall be
the next objective. Shall we start on a great work, and if so what shall it be?
Shall we study a special part of scripture such as the Law of Moses and master
that? Shall we make ourselves acquainted with original languages to enlarge our
understanding of the Word? It is necessary sometimes to weigh such questions in
our minds, but we must not allow too much time to be lost through such
cogitations. The time during which the amateur plowman marks out his course is
not productive. The plow may be still, but time is on the wing and the day will
soon be over. We must not delay our work by hesitating between a number of
objects, all of them equally good as waymarks. What would be thought of the
plowman who wasted half the morning trying to decide between the merits of a
stick and a white stone as marks for his straight line? Quite a lot might be
urged in favour of either mark. The stick in vertical position rising from the
ground would surely be better than any flat object. On the other hand, the white
stone would shine
better than any stick. Which shall it be? If a man could be so
foolish as to hesitate and hinder with such a problem we would exclaim, "Use
either, use neither, or use both; but what ever you do don't waste time over
it." We cannot imagine a plowman being so foolish; but, on the higher plane, men
often waste half their lives trying to decide between the merits of possible
activities. They take these limited objectives too seriously. The excuse of such
aids is that they are known to be limited. The final objective is immeasurably
greater. If the plowman puts up minor marks of such prominence as to obscure his
view of the final mark they hinder him instead of helping. The best marks are
those that lie near to hand and to which we can apply ourselves
Even apart from the waste of time involved in the search for
more remote objectives it often happens that when they are found they are less
helpful than the little duties that were near to us. Many men are like a plowman
who should waste half the available time in searching for hedge stakes in a
distant field in order that he might mark out his straight line in a worthy
manner. Having found at last the objects that please him he sets them up without
caring about the straight line. He loses sight of the distant mark and spends
the remnant of his little day zigzagging after objects that should have been
merely means to an end. "In all things consider the end." We must never lose
sight of the end even for a moment in plowing our furrow that leads to the
Kingdom of God. When we set up limited objectives to help us we must always
remember that they are limited.
Our plowman brother who suggested these thoughts does not need
the way-marks when he sets out the work for his plowing in the literal field.
With no guide but a mark in the distant hedge, doubtless he can draw a line
straighter than most of us could plow even with stakes set up every few yards of
the way. In the plowing for Christ, however, we are more on a level and we all
need way-marks to help us. When he set off to walk to the morning meeting the
plowman was aiming at a limited objective in the straight line for the Kingdom
of God. Nine miles seems a long tramp only to reach a waymark and with the
possibility that there may be hundreds more of such marks before the end. When
we consider the end, however, we can see the matter in its true proportions. At
the end of mortality's day, if the line has been drawn straight and true there
will be something more to show than a well plowed furrow across a field, and the
goal reached will be very different from a mark in the hedge.