Things to Leave Undone
J. R. Miller
Some things must be left out; just what they shall be—is the question. Many hands beckon continually. We can follow the beck of only one; which shall it be? There are thousands of books standing up in their place in the library, each one crying, "Read me!" But one is all we can read today; which shall it be? Every morning, we think of many things we would like to do and might do—visits of courtesy and kindness, perhaps of helpfulness or sympathy, we might pay; affairs of business; matters of pleasure or self-improvement, we might attend to—but we cannot, with our limitations of time and strength—do one in ten of all these possible things. Which of them shall we do? There is a duty of neglecting, of leaving undone—as well as a duty of faithfulness and diligence in doing.
How shall we know what things not to do? Is there any law of selection, any principle which should guide us in deciding what we should leave undone among the many things that invite us?
We may set it down as a first rule, that the duties which belong to our common vocation or employment, should always have the precedence. We must not neglect these, however urgent other calls may be. If a boy is in school—his school tasks must receive his thought and occupy his time—to the exclusion of every other occupation, until they have been mastered. If a young man is in a business position of any kind—the duties of his position must be attended to with punctuality, promptness, and fidelity, before he has a minute for anything else. No matter how many outside interests may appeal to his sympathy or his desire, nor how eager he may be to respond to the appeals—he has no right to listen to one of them, until he is free from the allotted tasks of the day.
If a young woman is a teacher in a school, her engagement binds her to perform the duties of her position during certain hours of five days every week, for a definite number of months in the year. There may come to her many opportunities of doing other things. Poor people may need care and help which she could give them. Sick neighbors may require visiting and watching with through long nights, and her heart may prompt her to undertake this ministry of mercy. Mission work may appeal for helpers and she may be eager to enter it, may almost feel that she dare not refuse to do so. It would be easy for her to be always going somewhere on some good errand, filling every moment of her time with work aside from her school duties.
But this young woman will make a serious mistake, if she thinks that it is her duty to do all these good and beautiful things which make their appeal to her sympathetic heart. Her first thing, that to which God has called her for the time, at least, that which she has covenanted to do, and for which she has been sacredly set apart—is her work as a teacher. Not only is she to devote the regular school hours to her specific duties as teacher—but, besides, she must give all the time necessary for conscientious and careful preparation for her tasks, so as to do them well, and also must secure such measures of rest as will fit her for her duties. All this work is her's by divine allotment, by divine commandment, and if she turns aside to any other task, though it is a religious service—she is robbing God. Everything else that offers must be resolutely neglected until this work has been done well enough to present to her Master.
This teaching is very important. It matters not what one's regular calling may be—the commonest daily work, or the most lowly office, or the highest duty of earth—whatever it is, it must always be the first in one's thought and in the occupation of one's time.
There must be no skimping of one's daily task. Even a prayer meeting is not so sacred—as one's ordinary duty which fills the same hour, and it will not be right to go to the prayer meeting, when in doing so tasks for that hour are left undone.
Sometimes good people get wrong opinions on this subject. They suppose that because it is a religious service or some holy task that invites, they may be excused for neglecting a common secular duty or for being late for some engagement. There have been men who failed utterly, bringing ruin upon themselves and their families, because they neglected their duties in running to prayer meetings or looking after what they called religious interests. There have been women whose homes suffered, and whose children were left uncared for, while they were attending conventions, or looking after some social or religious affair outside. They have made themselves believe that the importance of such outside services was so great, that even the holiest duties of motherhood and wifehood might be passed by—in order that these other things should be done.
But this is a sad misreading of the divine law. It should be set down as an invariable and inexorable rule, that general appeals to interest and sympathy are to be denied until one's own sacred work has been faithfully done. Nothing is so binding upon us—as the duty we have engaged to do. No work is so sacred to us as our own, that which comes to us in our place, which no other can do for us.
After all this duty has been performed with conscientious fidelity—then we may think of doing the other things which we may find to do. Still the question wait, "What shall we do—and what shall we neglect?" There is room always for wise choosing—we cannot do all that we might find to do. There is a vast difference in the value and importance of the various opportunities or appeals which come to us—and we should choose to do those things which bring the greatest good to others, or leave the deepest permanent result.
Many of the things which we might do—are not worth while to do. No good would come to the world, from our doing of them. It is well for a busy man to have a ministry, something profitable to which he turns, when his day at the duties of his vocation is ended—but he should make sure that it is a ministry which will prove a benefit not to himself only—but to others as well. If we are to give account for every idle word—we must also give account for every idle hour spent in any useless occupation. Sometimes the most sacred use of leisure hour is rest; or bright, cheerful recreation, to fit one for the serious tasks and duties which wait on the morrow.
But we should always remember that we have a duty of not doing, and that many calls for our time and strength must be firmly declined. Not every open door opens to a duty. The tempter opens doors, too, and we are to resist all his solicitations. Then there are calls which are not to sinful things—but to things that are worthless. There even come to all of us, appeals for ministrations of mercy and kindness which are not to be regarded, because prior duties fill the hands that would quickly turn to these new services if they were empty. There are first things which must never be neglected nor displaced, though a thousand appeals clamor for our attention.
When Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," he did not mean merely prayer meetings, sick calls, and social visits—he meant the great duties and occupations which belong in each day. For most of us, these fill our waking hours. What we shall do in our leisure time—we shall learn if we are ready always to follow the Master's leading.
It need not even be said, that all wrong and sinful things should be left undone. Part of the confession we must make every day, is that we have done things which we ought not to have done. There is need for more tenderness of conscience, more careful searching of heart, that we may put out of our life firmly and remorselessly everything which ought not to be there. We are too easily satisfied with low attainments. We are fond of saying that no one can live perfectly, that, do the best we can—we sin every day.
There is a story of a good woman who said she found a great deal of comfort in the doctrine of total depravity. We seem to find a great deal of comfort in this teaching, that everyone has faults and failings. It makes a fine, broad cloak which covers many shortcomings. The result is in too many cases that we live on altogether too low a plane. As good orthodox Christians, we have the privilege of denying that perfection is possible, and we self-indulgently make altogether too little effort to reach the unattainable goal.
We are too tolerant of our own failures and sins! We are not so tolerant of the failings and sins of others. We hold our neighbors to a very rigid account. We make small allowance for their infirmities, and for the sharpness of their temptations. We set a high standard for them—and expect them to reach it. It would be more Christ-like if we would reverse this course, showing charity to others in their weakness and failure—and being intolerant of fault and shortcomings in ourselves! No discovered sin, should ever be allowed to remain for an hour; to give it hospitality is disloyalty to Christ and to truth. We should keep before us continually the highest ideal, the perfect life of Christ himself, that in the beauty and whiteness of his faultless character, we may ever detect the flaws in ourselves and be stimulated toward whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are lovely.
Thus, too, our standard will ever be advancing, so that what satisfies us today—will not satisfy us a year hence. We shall see, each new day, something hitherto tolerated, perhaps loved and cherished, which must be given up and left out. Paul gives us certain lists of traits, qualities, and habits belonging to the "old man," which he exhorts us to put off in the culture of the new life.
A true life ever reaches upward and strives toward better things. It leaves behind the things that are imperfect, as it presses toward perfection. It puts away childish things, as it grows toward manhood. It leaves undone the things that are not right or beautiful, the things that are not essential—and gives all its energy to the attaining and achieving of the things that are excellent, the things that belong to the imperishable and eternal life.