The Common Task
by F. B. Meyer
A young friend, richly gifted, but who is tied by inexorable necessity to an office stool, has complained to me that life afforded no outlet for the adequate exercise of his powers.
His groan is a very common one. So many grumble about the monotony of life’s dead-level, which the great majority of us have to traverse. The upland paths which give an ecstasy to tread in the bracing air and the expanding glory of the world are for the few. For the most of us, it is the trivial round, the common task. Each morning the bell calls to the same routine of common-place toil. Each hour brings the same program of trifles. There seems no chance for doing anything heroic, which will be worth having lived for, or will shed a light back on all past, and forward on all coming days.
But there are two or three considerations, which, if wrought into the heart, will tend to remove much of this terrible depression.
All Life is Part of a Divine Plan
As a mother desires the best possible for her babes, bending over the cradle which each occupies in turn, so does God desire to do His best for us all. He hates nothing that He has made, but has a fair ideal for each, which He desires to accomplish in us with perfect love. But there is no way of transferring it to our actual experience, except by the touch of His Spirit within, and the education of our circumstances without.
He has chosen the circumstances of our life, because they are the shortest path, if only we use them as we should, to reach the goal on which He has set His heart. He might have chosen some other country — China, India, Italy, or Mexico. He might have chosen some other age — that of the Flood, the Exodus, or of the early martyrs. He might have chosen some other lot — a royal court, a senate, a pulpit, or an author’s desk. But since he chose this land, this age, and your lot (whatever it may be), we must believe that these presented the likeliest and swiftest way for realizing His purpose.
If, my brother, you could have reached your truest manhood as an emperor or a reformer, as a millionaire or a martyr, you would have been born into one of those positions; but since you are only a servant, a bank clerk, or an ordinary business man, you will find right beside you the materials and possibilities of a great life!
If, my sister, you could have attained to the loftiest development of your nature by being a mother, or a rich man’s wife, or a queen, you would have found yourself placed there; but since your lot is that of a milliner’s assistant, factory hand, or toiling mother, you must believe that somewhere within your reach, if only you will search for them, you will discover the readiest conditions of a noble and useful life!
Who can wonder at the complaints of aimlessness, the vanity, the weariness of life? People wither who have no plan, or they have got a wrong one. “What’s the fashion?” “What do others do?” “What’s the correct thing?” How much better and wiser to believe that God has a perfect plan for each of us, and that He is unfolding it a bit at a time by the events which He puts into our life each day!
Before Moses built the tabernacle, he saw the whole pattern of it in prophetic vision. In some secluded spot on Sinai’s heights, it stood before him, woven out of sunbeams; and he descended to the mountain foot to repeat it in actual curtains, gold, and wood. God does not show us the whole plan of our life at a burst, but unfolds it to us bit by bit. Each day He gives us the opportunity of weaving a curtain, carving a peg, fashioning the metal. We know not what we do, but at the end of our life the disjointed pieces will suddenly come together, and we shall see the symmetry and beauty of the Divine thought. Then we shall be satisfied.
In the meantime, let us believe that God’s love and wisdom are doing the very best for us. In the morning, ask God to show you His plan for the day in the unfolding of its events, and to give you grace to do or bear all that He may have prepared. In the midst of the day’s engagements, often look up and say, “Father, is this in the plan?” At night, be still, and match your actual with God’s ideal, confessing your sins and shortcomings, and asking that His will may be more perfectly done in you, even as in heaven.
Every Life Affords Opportunities for Building Up Noble Character
We are sent into this world to build up character which will be blessed and useful in that great future for which we are being trained. There is a niche which only we can fill, a crown which only we can wear, music which only we can wake, service which only we can render. God knows what these are, and He is giving us the opportunities to prepare for them. Life is our school house. Its rooms may be bare, but they are littered with opportunities of becoming fit for our great inheritance.
Knitting needles are cheap and common enough, but on them may be wrought the fairest designs in the richest wools. So the incidents of daily life may be commonplace in the extreme, but on them, as the material foundation, we may build the unseen but everlasting fabric of noble and beautiful character. It does not so much matter what we do, but the way in which we do it matters greatly. What we do may or may not live; but the way in which we perform our common tasks becomes an indestructible part of our character, for better or worse, and for ever.
Suppose we met the daily demands of life in a slovenly and careless spirit, caring only to escape blame, to earn our wage, or to preserve a decent average. Or suppose our one aim in life is to get money for our own enjoyment. Is it not clear that the meanness of the motive will react on the whole character behind it? Will it not be certain and inevitable that the soul which is always bathed in such atmosphere, confronted with such ideals, will become slovenly, careless, mercenary, and selfish? And when some great occasion arises, it will call in vain for the high qualities of a noble nature.
Suppose on the other hand that we do the little duties of life faithfully, punctually, thoughtfully, reverently — not for the praise of man, but for the “Well done!” of Christ — not for the payment we may receive, but because God has given us a little piece of work to do in His great world — not because we must, but because we choose — not as the slaves of circumstances, but as Christ’s freed ones — then far down beneath the surge of common life the foundations of a character are laid, more beautiful and enduring than coral, which shall presently rear itself before the eyes of men and angels, and become and emerald islet, green with perennial beauty, and vocal with the sons of paradise.
We ought, therefore, to be very careful how we fulfill the common task of daily life. We are making the character in which we have to spend eternity. We are either building into ourselves wood, hay, and stubble, which will have to be burnt out at great cost; or the gold, silver, and precious stones, that shall be things of beauty and joy forever.
The Great Doing of Little Things Will Make a Great Life
Let it be granted that you are a person of ordinary ability. It is as likely as not that you will never be moved into a wider sphere than the obscure one in which you have been pining, like a wood-bird in its cage. Give up your useless regret, your querulous complaint, and begin to meet the call of trivial common place, with tenderness to each person you encounter, with faith in God, as doing His best for you, with heroic courage and unswerving fidelity, with patience, thoroughness, and submission.
Go on acting thus, week in and week out, year by year, with no thought of human notice, determined always to be at your best, eager only to pay out, without stint, the gold of a noble unselfish heart. At the end of life, though you wist not that your face glistens, others will see you shining like the sun in your heavenly Father’s kingdom. It will be discovered that you have unwittingly lived a great life, and you will be greeted on the threshold of heaven with the “Well done!” of your Lord.
Some who are sighing for a great life are unconsciously living it in the eye of God’s angels. Those who forgo marriage that they may bring up and educate the younger children of their homes; those who deny themselves almost of the necessaries of life to add some coals of comfort to the meager fire at which the chill hands of age warm themselves; those who are not only themselves pure amid temptation, but the centers of purity, shielding others; those who stand to their post of duty, though fires, as they creep near, are scorching the skin and consuming the heart; those who meet the incessant demand of monotonous tasks with gentleness, unselfishness, and the wealth of a strong, true heart — these, though they know it not, are graduating for the front ranks of heaven’s nobility.
“Oh! Where is the sea?” the fishes cried,
As they swam the crystal clearness through;
“We’ve heard from old of the ocean’s tide,
And we long to look on the waters blue.
The wise one speak of the infinite sea.
Oh! Who can tell us if such there be?”
The lark flew up in the morning bright,
And sang and balanced on sunny wings;
And this was its song: “I see the light
I look o’er the world of beautiful things;
But flying and singing every where,
In vain I have searched to find the air.”
It Is a Greater Thing to Do Little Things Well Than Those Which Seem More Important
They who daily handle matters which bulk largely before the eyes of their fellows are expected to act from great motives, and to behave worthily of their great and important positions. The statesman is expected to be high-minded; the Christian lady to be virtuous; the minister to be earnest. There is no special credit to any of these for being what they profess and are expected to be. The current is with them. Their difficulty would be to face it.
But surely, in God’s sight, it is a much great thing when the soul conquers adverse circumstances, and rises superior to the drift of its associations. To be high-minded, when your companions are mean and degraded; to be chaste, when ease and wealth beckon you to enter the gate of vice; to be devout or zealous, when no on expects it; to do small things from great motives — this is the loftiest attainment of the soul.
It is a greater thing to do an unimportant thing from a great motive, for God, for truth, for others, than to do an important one; greater to suffer patiently each day a thousand stings, than to die once as a martyr at the stake. And therefore, an obscure life really offers more opportunities for the nurture of the loftiest type of character, just because it is less liable to be visited by those meaner considerations of notoriety, or applause, or money, which intrude themselves into the more prominent positions, and scatter their deadly taint.
Little Things Greatly Done Prepare for the Right Doing of Great Things
We sometimes lay down the story book or the history with a groan. We have been reading of some sudden opportunity which came to a Grace Darling, reared in the obscurity of a fisherman’s home, or to a Florence Nightingale, or a John Brown, living apart from the great world in the heart of the Adirondacks.
“Oh,” we say, “if only such a chance would dip down into my life, and lift me out of it! I’m weary, weary of this dull level!”
Ah! It is a common mistake. Men think that the occasion makes the hero; whereas it only reveals him.
The train must have been laid long before, and carefully, else the falling of a single spark would never blast the mighty rocks or shiver the frowning fortress-walls. There must be the fabric of strong and noble character, built up by patient continuance in well-doing, else the sudden appeal of the critical hour will knock vainly at the door of life, and the soul will crouch unanswering and helpless within.
If great opportunities were to come to most, we could make nothing of them. They would pass by us unnoticed or unimproved. They would go from us to those who had more nerve, or grit, or spiritual power than we. You cannot, just because you will, speak a foreign language, or dash off a brilliant air upon the piano, or walk easily on the motive of one of Browning’s poems. All these demand long and arduous study. That must be given first in the chamber; and then, if a sudden summons comes for any of them, on the housetop of observation, you will be ready.
You cannot be brave in a crisis if you are habitually a coward. You cannot be generous with a fortune if you are a miser with limited income. You cannot be unselfish in some such accident which imperils life if you are always pressing for the one vacant seat in the train or omnibus, and elbowing your way to the front on every possible occasion. David must practice with the sling and stone through long hours in the wilderness, or he will never bring down Goliath. Joseph must be pure in thought and strong in private self-discipline, or he will never resist the solicitations of the temptress. The Sunday School teacher must be regular, painstaking, faithful in the conduct of his class of little ragged boys, or he will never be promoted to serve his Master as a minister at home, or as a missionary abroad.
Our Behavior in Little Things is the Truest Test of What We Are
If I were eager to secure a good employee for a responsible position, I should not attach much importance to the way in which the candidate acted on a set occasion, when he knew that he was being observed. Of course, he would be on his best behavior. But give me the private window so I can watch him in his least considered actions — how he behaves at home, how he treats his mother and sister, how he fulfills the common duties of life. What he is then, he is really!
But if this is man’s way, may it not be God’s? There are great tasks to be fulfilled in eternity; angels to be judged; cities to be ruled; perhaps worlds to be evangelized. For these, suitable agents will be required: those who can rule, because they have served; those who can command, because they have obeyed; those who can save others, because they never saved themselves. Perhaps, even now our Heavenly Father is engaged in seeking those among us who can fill these posts. And he is seeking them, no amongst such as are filling high positions in the eyes of men, but in the ranks of such as are treading the trivial round and fulfilling the common task.
From the nearest fixed star, the inequalities of our earth, whether of Alp or molehill, are alike insignificant. We need to look at our positions from the standpoint of eternity, and probably we shall be startled at the small difference between the lots of men. The one thing for us all is to abide in our calling with God, to count ourselves as His fellow-workers, to do what we can in His grace, and for His glory, never excusing ourselves, never condoning failure or misdoing, never content unless, by the help of the Blessed Spirit, we have wrought out His promptings and suggestions to the best of our power, whether in the gold of the extraordinary, or the bronze of the cheaper and more ordinary achievement.
Of course, there is no saving merit in what we do. Salvation is only by simple trust in our Savior, Jesus. But when we are saved, it gives new zest to life to do all for Him, as Lord and Master; and to know that He is well pleased in the right doing of the most trivial duties of the home or daily business.
For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if when you do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. 1 Peter 2:20
May each reader learn this happy art, and go through life offering all to God, as the white-stoled priests in the temple of old. Indeed, all believers have been made priests unto God; every sphere may be a holy temple; and every act done in the name of Jesus may be a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.