Shallow Lives

J. R. Miller


In on of our Lord's parables, he depicts different lives as different kinds of ground, or rather ground in different conditions. One kind he describes under the figure of thin soil, too thin to bring anything to ripeness or perfection. The soil may be rich enough in its quality—perhaps the very best in the field—but there is too little of it. It consists of only a thin layer, and then under it lies a hard rock. The seeds are cast into the soil, which receives them eagerly, and nourishes them into quick life, "immediately they sprang up," all the more quickly "because they had no deepness of earth." For a little time they gave splendid promise of growth—but "when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away."

We understand the illustration, so far as the literal meaning is concerned. There are patches of soil like this in many a farmer's field. The wheat shown there, is the first of all to spring up, laughing at the slower seed in other parts of the field. But the first hot day it withers, and that is the end of it!

It is our great Teacher himself who paints this picture for us, meaning us to get a spiritual lesson from it. He tells us plainly, also, what kind of people he has in mind—those who hear the word, at first receiving it with joy—but in whom the word, lacking root, does not abide, because it cannot bear the testing of this world, and soon droops and perishes.

That is, there are those who by reason of the thinness or shallowness of their life—do not furnish soil in which the good things of Christian principle and character can grow. They are not unreceptive, like the life depicted under the figure of the trodden road; they receive quickly and impulsively, the good teachings and holy influences which come to them. But they just as quickly let them go. Worthy intentions do not grow into fixed purposes. Impulses do not become principles. Good feelings do not ripen into fruits of noble character. Heavenly visions are not wrought into holy deeds. The green shoots lie withered and dead on the ground!

Shallowness of life is too common a fault. It is not a large proportion of beginnings of good, which grows into maturity. There are too many people who are always eager to accept any new truth that is brought to them—but who do nothing with it, make nothing of it, do not assimilate it in their life— and therefore soon lose it. Many begin to build, and are not able to finish. Countless readers read part of the first volume of great books, and never get any farther. In certain popular schools and lecture courses, the first enrolment falls off fifty percent before the close. If all who begin to learn music or art persevered unto the end—how full the world would be of music and of beauty! If all fine beginnings of character ripened into perfection—how good we all would be!

One of the pictures of the crucifixion of Jesus shows the scene on Calvary, after the body had been taken down and laid away in the grave. All is quiet and still. The crowd is gone. No one is seen about the place. There are only the ghastly memorials of the terrible things which had happened during the day. Off to one side of the picture is seen a donkey, nibbling at some withered palms that lay there. Thus the artist most graphically teaches the fickleness of human applause. Only a few days before—a great throng had followed Jesus over Olivet into the city in triumphant procession, waving their palm branches and strewing them on the road before him—as they shouted their hosannas. Now Jesus is dead, crucified, and here, near by the cross, lie those faded reminders of that glad day's rejoicing—nothing more.

So fickle was men's love for Jesus in those days, and so quickly did their hosannas change to shouts of derision! But is it different today? Do not men's hearts grow warm and tender with love for Christ on Sunday, in a service of devotion—and then by Monday lose all their glad, spiritual enthusiasm? The palm branches of praise and consecration, the green leaves of good resolves and eager intentions, lie withered on the ground, amid the tokens of unfaithfulness and disloyalty.

We hear stirring appeals to duty, and our hearts respond gladly and ardently. We think that we have become altogether Christ's, that our life henceforth will be devoted to him without stint or reserve. But, alas! The soil is thin. The green shoots find no place to root, and under the first hot sun they wither. What comes of all our good intentions, our fair promises, our sacred pledges, our solemn vows? Too often nothing but faded leaves. We mean to live grandly—in the glow of our devotions we sincerely intend to be apostolic in our zeal and in the beauty of our character and work; but in the end nothing but pitiful failure comes of it all.

On every church roll, there are the names of those who began well, with unusual promise, and for a little time maintained the high standard of their auspicious beginning—but by and by, in the stress and pressure of duty and responsibility, or in the face of opposition and ridicule, they lost interest and soon fell out of the ranks altogether. In every city and town, there are thousands of lapsed church members. Once they were active and enthusiastic in following Christ—but they wearied in well doing—and no longer even claim to be Christians.

Nor is it in religion only, that this failure appears; we see illustrations of like fickleness in all departments of life. We see it in work, in business, in friendship, in education. Men are so impatient to get into active life, to be doing good, to be making money, to be shining as lights in the world—that they will not take time for adequate and thorough preparation. What in other men requires ten years—they try to crowd into three or four. They will spend no time in laying deep foundations; they are in such haste to see the superstructure of their dreams rising. They will not give years to apprenticeship—life is too short, they say, for such slow processes, at least for them; and they are out in the world long before the slow, plodding companions of their earlier youth. They form friendships almost at sight, and in a few days or weeks—make intimacies which in people of different mold require months or years. The seed springs up immediately.

But the end is the same in all cases. The eager student who had not patience to make thorough preparation for his profession, finds himself at length facing tasks which he cannot perform, and is a failure. The man who in youth spurned the drudgery required to learn a trade or a business—at mid-life or earlier discovers that he can do nothing well, and that there is no place for him in the world's crowded ways. He is pushed out of the ranks, therefore, not because men are hard or unkind—but because he cannot hold his place and do his work.

The friendships that sprang up in a day and at once became so ardent prove short lived, and leave only emptiness and sorrow behind. Few other causes are productive of so many failures in life—as thinness, superficiality. Noble possibilities perish, because there is no depth of soil in which heavenly plants can root themselves. The trouble is not with the native endowment—that may be princely; it is with the culture, the training. With depth of soil the harvest would have yielded a hundredfold; but by reason of its shallowness, there is no harvest at all.

We need to give serious thought to the warning against shallowness of life. The farmer's remedy is shovels and rakes, and the breaking up and removal of the rock. Then, in the deepened soil—the seeds will grow, taking firm root and coming to perfection. We should seek the deepening of our spiritual life—so that the words of God may find entrance, and may grow into a harvest of beauty. "It is bad to be hard—but it is bad also to be thin." No price we may have to pay, should be thought too great if the result is the development of all the possibilities there are in our life.

We cannot miss sore testing. Every life will have its trials. Our Lord in his explanation of the parable, says that when tribulation or persecution arises because of the Word, the man with the shallow life stumbles immediately. He cannot stand in the battle. The plants of righteousness growing in him have no deep root, and cannot endure the summer's heat.

In these modern days when Christianity is so widely in favor, and when persecution is rare—we may think that such testing will not be experienced. But never have there been days which more sorely tried believers in Christ, than do our own very days. Persecution is not the only trial which tests faith. It is harder to live nobly—than to die heroically. It may be easy now to profess Christ—but it is not easy to live the true Christ-like life year after year. Prosperity is ofttimes sorer testing than adversity. Many a man who could endure the hardness of war as a good soldier—fails utterly in the days of peace. Luxury slays more, both bodies and souls, than poverty. Only the plant that has deep root—can live through heat and drought.

We must provide for both summer heats and winter storms—if we would be ready to stand all the tests of life. We may be tried by sorest assaults of tempter, or by the most gentle fascinations of unsuspected evil. We must be ready for either. The only preparation that will avail, is a faith fixed upon Christ, a life rooted in him, a purpose which no tempest of temptation can shake. The winds and storms make the well-rooted tree stand all the more firmly.

So it is with the Christian life which is truly rooted in Christ. It has its temptations, its trials, its struggles—but they only strengthen it, making it cleave to Christ the more closely and firmly, and grow into all the more beautiful character. But if our faith is feeble; if our religion is one of feeling only instead of principle; if we are ruled by the emotions instead of by the power of an inner life—then we shall not be able to endure the storms, and shall faint and fall under their sweep and strain!