Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
“Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.” Psalm 77:19
Men tell us that there are few more impressive sights than that of a burial at sea. It is even more solemn and arresting than the last rites beside an earthly grave. There is the ceasing of the throbbing engines, the gathering of the hushed crowd upon the deck. There is a simple service, the lifting of the body, and then–the plunge into the deep. And it is this element of silent secrecy, this hiding in unfathomable depths, which thrills and solemnizes and subdues.
Something like that was in the poet’s mind when he said of God, “Thy way is in the sea.” Mingling with all his other thoughts was the thought that God has His unfathomable secrets. And it is upon that element of secrecy, so characteristic of the divine procedure, that I want to dwell.
The Divine Secrecy of God’s Gifts
The best gifts are always at our hand. The brightest are never far away. All things needed for the song and crown are in the region where our hearts are beating. And yet though they are here, they are not flaunting themselves. They are by our side, but they are never showy. There is no name inscribed upon their foreheads nor any blast of the trumpet on their lips.
Think, for example, of the gift of love. In the darkest spot on earth, some love is found. I doubt if there is a man so brutal and so base that no one loves him and thrills at his approach. And yet how silent and how secret love is, hiding away from the human eye and speaking in a momentary glance. Our poets liken love to a flower. It is red as the rose, white as the lily. Yet love is not a flower of the field; love is the treasure hidden in the field. And thousands cross the field and never see it nor do they dream of the treasure hidden there until at last, in the appointed hour, passes the traveler who understands.
It is always so with the love of man. It is always so with the love of God. God’s love is here, and yet how secret and hidden it all is—how meaningless to the blinded–till Christ has come and shown His wounded side and led us to the glory of the cross.
The Providence of Life
The same thing also is true of the gift of life. Life is the one impenetrable secret. We have it and we thank God for it, and yet the wisest do not know what it is. It is not only of the heaven of heavens when looking up we say, “Thy footsteps are not known.” It is not only where the sun is shining and where beyond the sun there are the angels. The deepest mysteries are not in heaven; the deepest mysteries are not in hell. The deepest mysteries are here where we are and know not what we are. Life looks at us in every human glance. Life speaks to us in every human voice. Life meets us riotously in the play of children. Life shines transfigured in the face of saints. And yet what is it, so near and yet so far; so strong and beautiful, and yet so frail; so evident that none can pass it by; so hidden that no human hand can reach it? It baffles science with all its mighty claims. It baffles philosophy with all its pondering. No thought can get at it. Yet it is here where you are sitting and where I am writing. God’s footsteps are in the temple of my heart, and yet His footsteps are not known.
Not with the sound of a bell does God arrive when our feet are at the turning of the ways. Over the silent sea, the boat approaches, but the oars are muffled and we don’t hear it as it comes from the haven of the far away. Decked with the embroidery of common moments, the moments which do not commonly reach us. Wearing the aspect of our usual hours, our great hours of destiny arrive–and life shall never be the same again. We thought it was a common hand that touched us; we know now it was the hand of God. Ah! sirs, life would be easy if providential hours declared themselves; if they met us radiant and with an uplifted look, and cried, “I am one of thy great hours.” But they never meet us in a guise like that–never betray their greatness by their bearing–we hear no sound of the approaching footsteps–thy footsteps are not known.
When Abraham rested by the door at Mamre, he saw three travelers drawing near to the tent. They were but wayfarers, thirsty and dusty, and he had no idea that they were angels. And it is always thus that the angel-hours come, wearing the garments of the undistinguished, treading on the dusty ways of life, worn with the everyday weariness of man. How many noisy hours have passed away, and left no impact on our life. How many a little hour has been a seed, and is rooted deep and blossomed high as heaven. Yet was it borne upon the wind so noiselessly and fell so lightly that we never noticed it, and its roots are deep today and its topmost branches in the sky.
The Secrecy of God’s Approaches to the Soul
You who are students of the Scripture know what a favorite thought the secrecy of God was with Jesus Christ. It is not in the whirlwind that the kingdom comes when it makes it lodgment in the heart. Christ will not strive nor cry nor lift up His voice in the streets–those steep streets that lead into the soul. The kingdom comes as if a man should sleep, and the seed should spring up he knows not how. The kingdom comes just as the leaven comes, and who is so watchful as to see it rise? When Christ was born at the inn in Bethlehem, choirs of angels were singing in the sky. And when Christ comes again there will be the sound of the trumpet and a light so bright that every eye shall see Him.
But when Christ comes into the human soul, He comes with the voice so soft that none can hear it except the ear on which the message falls. Christ does not ride in an uproar to the soul; Christ steals in quiet secretly. The kingdom cometh not with observation, and here the kingdom is the King. His knock is so clear that when He knocks, you hear it, but His knock is so soft that no one else can hear it. To everyone else, it is an ordinary footstep, and to everyone else, it is an ordinary hand. But to you, there is a wound upon the hand and the print of the nails upon the feet. To you it is CHRIST, and He is yours forever in infinite and redeeming love.
The Secrecy of Christ While on Earth
Notable, too, is this element of secrecy in the life of Christ when He was here on earth. God hid Him under the garb of poverty and set Him amid the silence of the hills.
When a man has a message which he burns to make known, you know the passion that rises in his heart. You know how the beckoning hand of London calls him, and how he is restless till he has reached the capital.
But when God had a message, He despised the capital and passed it by and all the glories of it, and He sent His Son into a secret place where the wind was fresh upon the hills. There He was born, and men were in the inn jesting and drinking and knew not it was He. And kings were rioting and scholars pondering and armies marching with the imperial eagles. But not a whisper broke upon that riot nor hushed the play of the children in the streets nor fell on the legionaries with a sense of awe as at a greater captain than their own. Wrapped in the secrecy of distant Galilee, moving obscurely amid obscurer villages, shrinking when men would hail Him king, craving for Bethany in crowded streets–that was the signet on the hand of God; that was the seal of the divine procedure. The footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth were the footsteps of God, and yet His footsteps were not known.
God’s Secrecy Drives Us On
So far, then, upon the spheres of evidence, and now a word or two upon the other aspect. Can we discern the spiritual uses of this great element in God’s procedure? I shall tell you how it seems to me to bear upon our triumph or our failure.
In the first place, the secrecy of God is meant to be a spur to drive us on. There are things which are better for us not to hear, and God has the gracious strength to keep a secret. How often have we said to someone, “Ah, how I wish you had never told me that!” We can never have the same thoughts again since that one word was whispered in our ear. And we put it away from us and it comes again, and it rises from the dead when we least wish it, and we are brought lower and we are ashamed, just because someone could not keep a secret. There are times when there is strength in speech. There are times when there is strength in silence. There are things that it was very sweet to tell, but life has been far harder since we told them. And that is why God is silent in His love and will not speak although our hearts are craving, and tomorrow we shall thank Him for the silence that seems to be almost cruelty tonight.
“My father,” said Isaac, as they went up the hill, “Here is the wood, but where then is the lamb?” Poor child, so wistful and so happy, it would have been cruelty to have told him that. And so with us who are but wistful children, speech may be cruel and secrecy may be kind. When we reach the hilltop we shall see; and seeing we shall understand.
The Secrecy of God Should Give Us Hope
There is hope for the world and there is hope for men when we can say, “God’s footsteps are not known.” The footsteps of sin and vice are always known. There is nothing unobtrusive about them. They leave their print of filthiness and blood on every pavement and on every newspaper. And that is why a thousand men are pessimists, for these reeking footsteps are before them and they forget that God is also there—only His footsteps are not known.
Let some drunken husband kill his wife tonight, and you shall hear all about it in tomorrow’s newspaper, and “Breaking News on the television or Radio. And any scoundrel may have his doings published there so that any child can read about them. But thousands of homes were very happy yesterday and wives were singing and children were playing, but you shall read nothing in the papers about that. All that is of God, for love is of God; but then, you see, God’s footsteps are not known. And no one buys the paper to read that, and it is not at all notorious or flaunting. And what I say is that you must remember that sin is riotous and God’s way is in the still, small voice—or hope will go and hearts will be embittered and faith will die into the cold of death.
God’s Secrecy Keeps Us Faithful
And then, in closing, the secrecy of God is surely meant by God to keep us faithful. It is the pattern of our everyday life. It is given to help us in our daily round.
Rarely are we summoned to great deeds? To many of us, they never come at all. We are not beckoned along the shining road to anything that might arrest the attention of the world. We make our journey by a quiet way, with crosses that are commonplace and duties that are ordinary duties unflustered by any sparkle of glory.
There are blessings in a life like that, and there are hardships too. We miss the excitement and the music and the cheering. And it is on that level road when we are a little disheartened and discouraged that we should recall the secrecy of God.
When a man is famous, his footsteps are well known. He is not nearer God on that account. From the tiniest violet up to Jesus Christ, God moves in quiet and unobtrusive paths. And if it is thus He lavishes His beauty and makes His infinite sacrifice of love, we can be very near Him in our calling.
His way is in the sea, and so let mine be. Let me live and work where there are depth and freedom. His footsteps are not known–ah! happy God, who has thus chosen to reveal Thyself. So would I move apart and live unknown and never seek the clamor and the show; for love is not there with gladness in its eyes, nor does the road to the kingdom lie that way.