Spurgeon and the Lazy Monk

One of the more consistently popular posts on this blog is this one from 2012, in which I showed the two versions of Charles Spurgeon’s famous illustration that compares the gospel to a lion. In honor of the fact that the Spurgeon Commentary New Testament Letters collection is now compiled and should be on its way to customers soon, I thought I would share another one of Spurgeon’s illustrations that he told multiple times.

The point is that being spiritual should not be opposed to being practically useful, and he told it three times. This first is from Lectures to My Students:

To these people who never labour because they are so heavenly-minded, I would tell the story of a certain monk, who entered a monastery, but who would not work in the fields, or the garden, or at making clothes, or anything else, because, as he told the superior, he was a spiritually-minded monk. He wondered, when the dinner-hour approached, that there came to him no summons from the refectory. So he went down to the prior, and said, “Don’t the brethren eat here? Are you not going to have any dinner?” The prior said, “We do, because we are carnal; but you are so spiritual that you do not work, and therefore you do not require to eat; that is why we did not call you. The law of this monastery is that, if any man will not work, neither shall he eat.”[1]

The second is from a sermon on Matthew 6:31–33 called “Though Condemned, Yet Commanded.”

You have heard, perhaps, of the very pious man, who entered a monastery in order that he might spend all his time in devotion; so, when the time came for the brethren to go into the fields to work, he did not leave his cell; he was too spiritual to handle a hoe or a spade, so he continued in communion with angels. He was very much surprised, however, when the time came for the brotherhood to assemble in the refectory, that he was not called; and after waiting till the demands of hunger overcame the claims of his spiritual being, he went to the prior, and asked why he had not been called to the meal, and he was informed that, as he was so not work, it was thought that he was probably so spiritual that he could not eat; and, at any rate, the laws of the monastery did not permit him to eat until he had earned what he needed. There was much commonsense in that reply.[2]

The third, and longest, version is from a sermon on Proverbs 20:4 called “The Sluggard’s Reproof.”

I have no faith in that man’s religion who is lazy. He reminds me always of a certain monk, who went to a monastery, determined to give himself up entirely to contemplation and meditation. When he reached the place, he saw all the monks at work, tilling the ground, ploughing, or trimming the vines round the monastery, so he very solemnly observed as he entered, “Labour not for the meat that perisheth.” The brethren smiled, and they still continued their labours. He thought it his duty to reprove them a second time by saying, “Martha is cumbered with much serving, but I have chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from me.” However, it was taken from him, for the bell did not ring for him at the usual time for meals; and our brother, after waiting some few hours in his cell in prayer, beginning to feel certain calls within, came out, and accosting the prior of the monastery, enquired, “Do not the brethren eat?” “Do you eat?” said he; “I thought you were a spiritual man, for you said to the brethren, ‘Labour not for the meat that perisheth.’ ” “Oh, yes!” he replied, “I know I said that, but I thought the brethren ate.” “Yes,” answered the prior, “so they do, but we have a rule in our monastery that none eat but those that work. There is such a rule to be found in Scripture, too,” he reminded the monk; “Paul himself hath said it, ‘If any man would not work, neither should he eat.’ ” I think the master of that monastery acted and spoke wisely. A man must work in this life. He was sent to this world that he might be diligent in his calling, in the position in life in which God has been pleased to place him.[3]

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students: The Art of Illustration; Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastors’ College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 3 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 44.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 52 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1906), 62.

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 48 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1902), 74.


Rodney Stark on “The People’s Religion”

I’ve been reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and I’m struck by what he says about one of my major interests, Christian education, during the Reformation and post-Reformation:


The English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) noted that a preacher “may as well talk Arabic to a poor day-labourer as the notions” that the Anglican clergy preferred as the basis for their sermons. By the same token, Martin Luther’s efforts to provide religious education for the German peasants and urban lower classes failed so completely because the lessons were conceived by a university professor primarily far more concerned with intricate theological nuances than with basic themes….

Luther’s error was not unique. All across Europe, the established churches failed to convert and arouse the “masses,” by failing to recognize that it was a job for preachers, not professors. But the clergy seemed unable to grasp the point that sophisticated sermons on the mysteries of the Trinity neither informed nor converted….

As James Obelkevich explained, “what parishioners understood as Christianity was never preached from a pulpit or taught in Sunday school, and what they took from the clergy they took on their own terms…. Since the clergy were incapable of shaping a more popular version of the faith, villagers were left to do so themselves.”…

Although the people’s religion did often call upon God, Jesus, Mary, and various saints, as well as upon some pagan gods and goddesses (and even more frequently invoked minor spirits such as fairies, elves, and demons), it did so only to invoke their aid, having little interest in matters such as the meaning of life or the basis for salvation. Instead, the emphasis was on pressing, tangible, and mundane matters such as health, fertility, weather, sex, and good crops. (265–66)


In short: You have to meet people where they are if you want to hold their attention.

Spurgeon’s “Let the lion out of the cage” quote

Every now and then, I hear it attributed to some great preacher of the past that the gospel (or sometimes, the Bible) is like a lion (or sometimes, a tiger). The idea is that it doesn’t need to be defended; it just needs to be let out of the cage.

It’s a great quote, but what is the source? It comes from Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century Baptist preacher. He actually said it in at least three different forms. The first version I was able to find is from a book called Speeches at Home and Abroad, from a speech at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Bible Society, May 5th, 1875:

There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself. I do not know whether you see that lion—it is very distinctly before my eyes; a number of persons advance to attack him, while a host of us would defend the grand old monarch, the British Lion, with all our strength. Many suggestions are made and much advice is offered. This weapon is recommended, and the other. Pardon me if I offer a quiet suggestion. Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself. Why, they are gone! He no sooner goes forth in his strength than his assailants flee. The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.

And like many preachers with a good illustration, he repeated it. This is from a sermon called “Christ and His Co-Workers,” preached on June 10, 1886:

A great many learned men are defending the gospel; no doubt it is a very proper and right thing to do, yet I always notice that, when there are most books of that kind, it is because the gospel itself is not being preached. Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in the cage, and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I should suggest to them, if they would not object, and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, and open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself; and the best “apology” for the gospel is to let the gospel out. Never mind about defending Deuteronomy or the whole of the Pentateuch; preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the Lion out, and see who will dare to approach him. The Lion of the tribe of Judah will soon drive away all his adversaries.

Finally, this from a sermon titled “The Lover of God’s Law Filled with Peace,” preached on January 2, 1888:

The Word of God can take care of itself, and will do so if we preach it, and cease defending it. See you that lion. They have caged him for his preservation; shut him up behind iron bars to secure him from his foes! See how a band of armed men have gathered together to protect the lion. What a clatter they make with their swords and spears! These mighty men are intent upon defending a lion. O fools, and slow of heart! Open that door! Let the lord of the forest come forth free. Who will dare to encounter him? What does he want with your guardian care? Let the pure gospel go forth in all its lion-like majesty, and it will soon clear its own way and ease itself of its adversaries.

UPDATE: Want to see another example of Spurgeon telling an illustration multiple times? Read this post!

Václav Havel: 1936–2011

Václav Havel, the playwright and dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the Czech Republic in 1993, died on Sunday.

Havel was still president when I went to Prague to teach English in the fall of 2002. I was there in early 2003 when his term as president ended. For the last month of his time in office, he placed a large neon heart above Prague Castle (where the president lives and works) to show his love and gratitude for the Czech people. During my year there, I not only learned how to pronounce Václav (vahts-lahv), I read a collection of his essays, Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-1990. I found many of his writings courageous and inspiring, and his idea of “living in truth” is particularly powerful. Here are a few passages I underlined in my copy of Open Letters:

From “Letter to Alexander Dubček”:

There are moments when a politician can achieve real political success only by turning aside from the complex network of relativized political considerations, analyses, and calculations, and behaving simply as an honest person. The sudden assertion of human criteria within a dehumanizing framework of political manipulation can be like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark landscape. And truth is suddenly truth again, reason is reason, and honor honor (48–49).

From “It Always Makes Sense to Tell the Truth”:

I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative coordinates. And when this happened, man began to lose his inner identity, that is, his identity with himself… It’s as if we were playing for a number of different teams at once, each with different uniforms, and as though–and this is the main thing–we didn’t know which one we ultimately belonged to, which one of those teams was really ours (94–95).

From “The Power of the Powerless”:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them (133).

If Western young people so often discover that retreat to an Indian monastery fails them as an individual or group solution, then this is obviously because, and only because, it lacks that element of universality, since not everyone can retire to an ashram. Christianity is an example of an opposite way out: it is a point of departure for me here and now–but only because anyone, anywhere, at any time, may avail themselves of it. In other words, the parallel polis points beyond itself and makes sense only as an act of deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole, as a way of discovering the most appropriate locus for this responsibility, not as an escape from it (195–196).

From “Politics and Conscience”:

I think that, with respect to the relation of western Europe to the totalitarian systems, no error could be greater than the one looming largest: that of a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are—a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself…. They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own expansion (259).

It is… becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters (270).

From “Six Asides About Culture”:

The more an artist compromises to oblige power and gain advantages, the less good art we can expect from him; the more freely and independently, by contrast, he pursues his own vision… the better his chances of creating something good—though it remains only a chance: what is uncompromising need not automatically be good (281).

From “Stories and Totalitarianism”:

[The totalitarian system] began with an interpretation of history from a single aspect, then made that aspect absolute, and finally reduced all of history to that one aspect. The exciting variety of history was discarded in favor of an orderly, easily understood interplay of “historical laws,” “social groups,” and “relations of production,” so pleasing to the eye of the scientist. But this gradually expelled from history the very thing that gives human life, time, and thus history itself a structure: the story (335).

From “New Year’s Address” (1990, after he had been elected president for the first time):

Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would also be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all (392).

Gandhi on Truth and Public Service

Lately I have been reading Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. There have been a few passages that I’ve skimmed over (like when he rattles off a string of names I don’t recognize, or when he dwells at length on his dietary habits), but there are also some great quotes like this one:

I now realize that a public worker should not make statements of which he has not made sure. Above all, a votary of truth must exercise the greatest caution. To allow a man to believe a thing which one has not fully verified is to compromise truth (264-5).

Especially during election season, when lies can seem about as plentiful as oxygen, I wonder how much difference it would make if we cared more about telling the truth than we cared about winning, getting our way or spinning things to our advantage.

In the last couple of years, I have heard more and more people encouraging one another to invest in gold because they don’t trust the economy and “gold has never been worth nothing.” Now I don’t want to give anyone financial advice; my brother is the one who got the financial smarts in our family. However, I will say that we would all be better off if more people, whether they are in public service or not, cared more about truth and wisdom than about trying to manipulate information or circumstances for our own advantage. After all, truth and wisdom are worth even more than gold:

Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction and understanding. (Pr 23:23)

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Pr 16:16)

John Stott on Social Justice

This Lent, I have been reading John Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ, to focus on what Jesus’ death means. I found this quote in the last section of the book, called “Living Under the Cross.” In light of the recent conflict between Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis on the meaning of “social justice,” and how it relates to the Gospel, I thought I would share it.

[A]s we have repeatedly noted throughout this book, the cross is a revelation of God’s justice as well as of his love. That is why the community of the cross should concern itself with social justice as well as with loving philanthropy. It is never enough to have pity on the victims of injustice, if we do nothing to change the unjust situation itself. Good Samaritans will always be needed to succour those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands. Just so Christian philanthropy in terms of relief and aid is necessary, but long-term development is better, and we cannot evade our political responsibility to share in changing the structures which inhibit development. Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices which spoil God’s world and demean his creatures. Injustice must bring pain to the God whose justice flared brightly at the cross; it should bring pain to God’s people too. Contemporary injustices take many forms. They are international (the invasion and annexation of foreign territory), political (the subjugation of minorities), legal (the punishment of untried and unsentenced citizens), racial (the humiliating discrimination against people on the ground of race or colour), economic (the toleration of gross North-South inequality and of the traumas of poverty and unemployment), sexual (the oppression of women), educational (the denial of equal opportunity for all) or religious (the failure to take the gospel to the nations). Love and justice combine to oppose all these situations. If we love people, we shall be concerned to secure their basic rights as human beings, which is also the concern of justice. The community of the cross, which has truly absorbed the message of the cross, will always be motivated to action by the demands of justice and love. (292-3)

Hello, 30

“The boy gathers materials for a temple, and then, when he is 30, concludes to build a woodshed.” – Henry David Thoreau

“After thirty, a body has a mind of its own.” – Bette Midler

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain

“The child thinks of growing old as an almost obscene calamity, which for some mysterious reason will never happen to itself. All who have passed the age of thirty are joyless grotesques, endlessly fussing about things of no importance and staying alive without, so far as the child can see, having anything to live for. Only child life is real life.” – George Orwell

“I’m thirty years old, but I read at the thirty-four year old level.” – Dana Carvey

“The body is at its best between the ages of thirty and thirty-five; the mind is at its best about the age of forty-nine.” – Aristotle

“All that I know I learned after I was thirty.” – Georges Clemenceau

“Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” – Jack Weinberg

Christianity and the American Revolution

I know I shared a quote from this book yesterday, but I couldn’t resist sharing another juicy one:

… the American Revolution became imbued with a religious cast not because Christians of that era were especially adept at applying Christianity to politics, but because so many people of religious fervor came to consider the political order of as much ultimate concern as the church itself. The same kind of intensity that Jonathan Edwards used in proclaiming the need for repentance and faith, John and Samuel Adams displayed in declaring the need for political liberty. In this sense the American Revolution represents more the product of a residual Christianity, its base deeply eroded, than it does the infusion of genuine Christian principles into politics.

from The Search for Christian America, 153-154

Quote 3 – C.S. Lewis on Instincts and Values

Telling us to obey instincts is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence to we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding in its own favor would be rather simple minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than the others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot itself be one of the parties judges: or if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 48-49)

The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic,’ or ‘fundamental,’ or ‘primal,’ or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgment passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation, and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 49)

“The legitimate reformer endeavors to show that the precept in question conflicts with some precept which its defenders allow to be more fundamental, or that it does not really embody the judgement of value it professes to embody. The direct frontal attack – ‘Why?’ – ‘What good does it do?’ – ‘Who said so?’ is never permissible; not because it is harsh or offensive but because no values at all can justify themselves on that level. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 60-61)

Quote 2 – The Roots of Sociology

“The consequences of the shift from agricultural [premodern, traditional] to [modern] industrial societies on social norms were so large that they gave birth to an entirely new academic discipline, sociology, which sought to describe and understand these changes. Virtually all of the great social thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century – including Toennies, Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Georg Simmel – devoted their careers to explicating the nature of this transition.” (Francis Fukuyama)