The Story and Sayings of Christ

By John Jay Chapman

From Letters and Religion (1924)

The Gospels themselves were always the central, radiative power of the Christian Church. For many centuries after the Dark Ages their influence reached the people only at second hand; yet all the good that was wrought on the common people came from the teaching of men who were immersed in the Gospels. Had the primitive Gospels been lost, had the Christian Church been obliged to run on the momentum of its own ritual, dogma, and propaganda, the whole fabric would, within a century or two, have tumbled together in a heap of dust, myth, barbarism, and insignificance.

Those wonderful sayings of Christ come to us as they came to Christ himself—uninterrrupted by intention. In his conduct and daily life he seems to have lived from moment to moment, not certain what step he was next to take. He drifts down the village street, comes across a friend or a wedding, a truth-seeker or a casuist, a sick man, an unknown woman in grief. Apparently he is the sport of invisible powers; and yet at every moment he is the same. At every moment he is seen, as it were, just dissolving into the will of God. His words and his actions appeal to some identity in us with a kind of whirring power, as of a big flywheel—not as speculation, but as an immediate experience. They operate upon something in us that is below the cortex. They tell us that we, too, are imprisoned in the running currents of the universe; we cannot get out. The lesson of the New Testament is, Submit, give way—assist not, protest not, save not. And these ideas are conveyed not merely in words, but by the thing itself. One would never have thought that the mind had so much power over the body as herein appears. Men are reorganized and set in tune by their passing reflections about Christ. We examine past ages by the gleam of this mirror, and we unravel daily problems by it. Turn the light of it upon local politics and it gives you an analysis; upon international matters, and it at least suggests a clue. But its responses are personal and not academic. It will not give you an answer about tomorrow, or about someone else. The determination of men to fetch out of Christ an answer about someone else, or about tomorrow, is what brings in the crimes of Christianity. The present moment is all that the mirror will illumine, turn it which way we will.

The effect of Christ’s words is to soothe those contractions of the will and attention—of the viscera and subconsciousness—which make us inaccessible to omnipresent force. Now the waking sleep of faith, whether of an instant or of an hour, is no more miraculous than natural sleep. This faculty, this dip into rest, is perhaps what Christ referred to when he said, “My yoke is easy and my burden light,” and “Except ye...become as little children.” It might without irreverence be termed a knack—the knack of dissolving into indifference to all consequence, whether personal or universal.

Pause is religion. It hovers over all men at all times and Christianity does no more than discover and expound, exhibit and assist it into the world. The ten thousand volumes written about the New Testament, the thousands of rituals, the millions of services, the unimaginable secret influences of Christ upon individuals everywhere, are the instrumentations of the pause in life which Christ’s teachings bring into the world. They hold up a finger and bid men cease trying to control their own destiny. Through this pause and arrestation men’s hearts are transmuted into something that is both personal feeling and universal thought.

For many centuries Christianity was thought of as an organization, and its truths as doctrines. Today we receive it more simply as an interpretation of life to the individual: each man drinks at the fountainhead. Our New Thought people, for all their quaintness and eccentricities of language, have done a great service; for they have rediscovered the fact that spiritual truths are expressed by paradox, and even by apparent nonsense. These quiet thinkers, mystics, and prayerful natures who move in our midst, have been keying our ears down to many noiseless deliverances of power. They prepare us to understand the paradoxes of the New Testament.

In Nature herself there is, of course, no paradox. The paradoxes exist only in the human symbols. The reason for them is that man is nothing positive in himself, but is the creature of a Power behind him. If you would express his relation to that Power in terms of man, you must do it by negations, as, for instance, man’s strength is weakness; his very identity is an illusion; his intentions act as interferences; his will is an impediment; his life is enlarged by sacrifice of intention, his power by nonresistance. Through relinquishment he becomes effective. The fiercest, most overwhelming and monumental example of the paradox lies in the history of Christ himelf, who, through acts of submission to God and words of absolute surrender and concession, liberated the most subversive force that had ever been known in human life.

All of Christ’s sayings allude to the same fact in nature. There is only one puzzle in the entire matter; but the coruscations and irradiations of it are seen in everything human, and especially in all of man’s attempts to tell the truth. It is as if we were creatures in a looking glass, and were obliged in our serious inscriptions to write from right to left. So deep was the Hebrew instinct for reversing the face of nature, that in the most remarkable passage of the Old Testament, where the coming Redeemer is described as of a nature completely passive, Isaiah puts his tremendous prophecy in the form of an historic statement: he views it as an event in the past—and thereby gains an inconceivable rhetorical force. If a thing is to be, thinks Isaiah, it already has been, in the mind of God. The Old Testament is full of bold enigmas of the same sort: The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong; The low shall be exalted and the high abased; The desert shall blossom like the rose; The dry bones shall live; The stone which the builders rejected is become the head stone of the corner. All these expressions allude to the same truth, which is ever so stated as to keep the other aspect of it in view—namely the power of God.

When a man resists not evil, but refers it to God, this does not mean that the evil is not resisted, but that the man summons a power within him which resists the evil for him. You may change or omit the last word, and express the whole Bible. Resist not evil, resist not thought, resist not suffering, resist not passion or appetite—Resist not. This is the whole of the law and the prophets; and most of Christ’s sayings make allusion to it.

Purpose is error. The more freely we let the mariner’s needle swing, the more closely will it point to our true purpose. “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” “Swear not at all, neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black.” The idea of an oath presupposes a kind of fulcrum in man’s will, which is offensive to Christ—as if the rod should lift itself up against him that shaketh it.

All these metaphors represent the clearest thought that has ever been bestowed upon the nature of our life. The thought is remorselessly identical in meaning always; but so varied in figure that men are led to the center of it by a thousand personal paths. The center is an absolute quiescence, and the discovery of love.

“If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him.” Here is an appeal to the crushing sense of love and helplessness which parents experience toward their children—a profound and mysterious experience, yet widespread and commonplace. Christ touches on this fact in nature lightly, and by a passing reference. It is a thing which the most hardened can understand—the commission of one’s children to the invisible—pagans do it. The words evoke a memory that conveys Christ’s idea.

The most obvious thing about Christ’s remarks is their casual nature. They are wafted past us. The student of religion cannot catch them, because he is a student. He wishes to impound and dissect them. He wishes to emphasize them; and they cannot be emphasized. Their relation to each other cannot be understood; because each is a totality, and the same totality. They can be related only by being superposed, one upon the other.

Their influence rises and grows of itself and builds itself into a sort of temple within men. I think that Christianity persists because men reflect on Christ at odd moments. He intrudes. He is more than a collection of proverbs, because of his centrality, and the lightning in him.

His sayings are the words of one who retained consciousness in a region where we lose consciousness. It is just above us, and out of reach—a point toward which wisdom converges. His words are let loose like birds. They differ from the old Hebrew teaching in being more personal. “I am the Lord thy God” becomes “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord” becomes “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of have done it unto me.” Almost his last words to his disciples were the most personal of all: “Feed my sheep.”

Knock and it shall be opened unto you: Seek and ye shall find: Ask and it shall be given unto you. this injunction goes to the very bottom of our functional life—contraction, relaxation; work, rest. It is stated as a religious truth with man asking and God giving; but it is a universal metaphysical truth, and one of the profoundest things ever said in psychology. You must have wished; you must have striven; you must have held on with intensity. But you must let go. The memory of this saying will help you in teaching a child to read. His effort must not be continuous, but spasmodic. Newton refers to the law in telling of the way his own mind worked upon its problems: he filled his thought with a problem and then put it off his mind, and the next morning the solution came of itself. The law reaches back and is operative in these regions of union and disunion between individuals which are beyond our conception—in the sky as it were. You have exhausted yourself in a campaign to expound something to a friend—so much depends on it. At last you give up the game, not as one who despairs, but as one who has shot his bolt. You have told your friend nothing about your intention to drop the struggle: it was in his absence that the idea occurred to you of withdrawing the opposition of your will to his. The next day he greets you as one convinced. He has followed your example, he has surrendered, he has seen your point.

All of Christ’s sayings deal with those spheres of unimaginable influence by which we are surrounded, in which we move. Our intellect can never grasp them; it is by the surrender of a purpose that we use these spheres—say rather are used by them. All the sayings tend to set free power dimly guessed at by other thinkers, but which Christ seems to have seen plainly. He uses metaphors so picturesque that they haunt the mind, so true to every form in which the forces show themselves that our thought is insensibly extended, ensnared, enmeshed, in the infinite. His short phrases strike like bell-shocks upon the tremulous universe.

Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Of our two primal states of mind—tension and relaxation—the second is the hard one to learn. Anyone can close his fist; frowning comes by nature; but to give up a pet idea requires an appeal to the supernatural. The world is made up of people with fixed eyes pulling at tillers, sighting lighthouses, and steering like mad things. All our interests conspire to intensify us, focalize us, limit us; and the joy of that region just above our comprehension and of which we cannot draw the plan, is the joy which the saints are always proclaiming. The saints, to be sure, are apt to be a little too clever, and want to annex the country to their own parish; but the celestial land exists nevertheless, and is as near to us as it was to them.

That freedom from all the tensions of the world, which the sages at all periods have sought in seclusion and contemplation, and which certain effete writers find in parlor hedonism and theories of beauty, has always been sought for also in shortcuts, as, for instance, by persons who drink, or eat opium, and who thus gain a refuge, or temporary false peace that passes understanding. Such persons are hard to reach with the taste of true peace; and yet not more hard to reach than those men of intellectual endowment who are bent upon practical work in some field which they have plotted out for themselves, whether it be the building of a railroad or the establishment of a theory of immortality. Amid the interests, ambitions, and passions of life it is all but impossible to retain an absolute and relaxed skepticism as to the terms and tickets of one’s own thought. Of course it is hard for the wise and prudent to set a value on the Cloud of Unknowing which is seen by the saint. Wisdom and prudence come between them and it; and of course the cloud is visible to babes and sucklings; for they see nothing else.

Insofar as the visible universe begins to dissolve under our contemplation, some of our pet interests and belongings begin to disappear, as if they were being foreclosed under a mortgage. Then we lay lay hold of the furniture. Babes and sucklings have no furniture. One thing is needful, said Christ. This is true; and this one thing involves the jettison of everything else.

We cannot but suppose that Christ knew how to write, and he had the example of the prophets and psalmists for hymns and letters; yet it is hard to imagine that he ever wrote a letter. His sayings, prayers, and sermons seem to be not so much a part of literature as a part of conduct; and this is why they affect conduct, and why they can receive a full meaning and be re-expressed only through conduct. There is a natural law of influence among men, according to which behavior affects behavior; speech, speech; writing, writing; and so on. We know, for instance, how easily children are governed by example, and how hardly by precept. Everyone knows the best way to get a half-grown boy to fill the wood-box. The method is expensive of personal energy—an heroic method.

But the hero in this world not only stimulates heroism in others; he excites speech and writing of all sorts, and Christ’s example has excited more speech and more writing than has anything else in the world; and this, combined with the depth, wit, and accuracy of his words, has given rise to all the speculations, rhapsodies, ethical talk, theology, and poems of Christianity. Such things are the true fruits of his doctrine; but they are not the doctrine. They are the work of men who are attempting to do what Christ himself did not try to do, that is, express himself in coherent literary form. Such a vehicle will not carry him. His ideas are sparks sent out from a central fire. This fire he communicated to his followers, and it has never been lost. The flame is so identified with his story and his utterances that it burns in men’s hearts as a living personality, a consciousness of Christ as the centrality of themselves, the focus of life—not merely of their own, but of all human life. Christ exists for them as a fiery pathway through the Universe, connecting man with man.

The line of demarcation between the Gospels and the rest of Christianity is clear enough. All the expounders of Christ, beginning with Saint Paul, want to say a little more than they know, or than is known. There exists, for instance, a certain conscious union with God, a thing that comes and goes and is the heart of religion. The early Christians called this grace; the Fathers defined it; the Church patented it; the theologians developed it; the politicians organized it; the saints and mystics dramatized it. I suppose that the literature and history of it would fill a library. Yet what Christ said about the subject was—“The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

So also, in his visit to Martha and Mary, Christ’s words to Mary, that she had chosen the “good” part, suggest the value of pure, silent devotion in much the same way as, at a later time, he justified the breaking of the box of ointment. In both cases it is the sentiment of women that is in question. Now think what monstrous piles of books have been printed about Martha and Mary as types of the “active” and the “contemplative” life, what treatises on the art of contemplation, what compendiums of ignorant knowingness! Yet nothing more is really known today about this whole subject than one gets from Christ’s phrase, “Mary has chosen the good part which shall not be taken away from her.”

I can never say the Lord’s Prayer without a fresh surprise. One would have expected something about the knowledge of God, love of men, spread of the gospel, progress, service, or feeling. But no: the Lord’s Prayer is sobering, prosaic, self-extinguishing. It asks for bread for the day only, and deliverance from evil—without a hint as to what evil is, except that somehow evil implies hard feelings toward other men. By the first words of the prayer all men are dissolved into a unity: Christ himself does not appear in it. Here indeed is a slowing-down of religious enthusiasms, ethical movements, ecstatic visions, emotionalism, cleverness, ambition—and a becoming as little children, which is all but insulting to the adult intelligence.

So this is what is left in the innermost dungeon and prison of life—Evil; and we cannot deliver ourselves from it! We do now know what it is; yet it diminishes upon our cry to God for help. The Lord’s Prayer is but another expression of the same truth that is in all of Christ’s sayings.

Nothing more is known about evil than appears in the Lord’s Prayer. There have been many attempts to define evil: codes of self-perfection, confessionals, analyses of sin, grades of penance, and so forth; and all of them turn men’s eyes inward. Their tendency is unhealthy and at war with the nature of life.

It would seem, as I have said, that “evil” is connected with hostile feeling toward others, and that this is so universal a frame of mind that a universal prayer must deal with it. The quaint language of “trespass” and forgiveness, and the three parties involved—God, ourselves, and other men—are all so woven together in the prayer that they make one single thought: Forgiveness of injury is love of God, penance, and absolution all in one.

There is an aspect of this question of evil which is revealed to us very slowly, and as the result of effort and experience. We are surrounded by evil: it is the most visible part of human nature. And yet, try how we will, we cannot touch or reach it in others. The only place where we are in true contact with evil is in the trembling rays of shadow that penetrate our own souls.

Faith, as Christ uses the word, is another name for nonresistence, for love, humility, negativity, immediate submergence in the surrounding Power. Faith means the acceptance of the next thing as being the important thing. If a man ask you to go with him a mile, go with him twain. Your own business, thoughts, or desires are of no moment or account. Perhaps they are to be found in those of the man.

Let the dead bury their dead. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Let the tares grow with the wheat. Ye are of more worth than many sparrows. The hairs of your head are numbered. Now is the time appointed.—All of Christ’s phrases fall upon the very nerve and joint of the passing hour. They are always applicable. They flow in between our mind and its purposes as part of an ethereal current that relaxes the will and makes atmosphere for our vision—softening, enlarging, delaying, vitalizing every process of life. This is the balm of a wisdom so supernal that we cannot receive it as a system. It must reach us as occasion gives entrance, being poured over us continually as from a moving cloud.

Among Christ’s words are certain dry observations which are overpoweringly intellectual, as, for instance, “To him that hath shall be given.” He said this in connection with the higher learning and in defense of parables, which in Hebrew times were regarded as part of the higher learning. If this phrase—to that that hath shall be given—could but be understood in our country, it would cure a misconception which amounts to a blight, namely, that idea that whatever you do must be done wholesale. “How many will your movement reach?” is the first question that the business man asks of the philanthropist. This puts an end to the higher education. If we could but learn that the light spreads downward, and that the lesser talents and general average of a people can be reached and raised only through a special care for those gifted ones who are to become the people’s teachers and inspirers! Learning should be given to them because they are able to receive it. Christ’s teaching itself could, at first, be received by a very few; and even the apostles misunderstood him often. One can imagine some benevolent Pharisee putting the same question to Christ: “How many will your movement reach?”

Another quiet and deep-cutting simile is the comparison of the growth of faith to the leaven in the meal. Now it is a fact that in certain natures conversion is a slow process. Such persons suspend judgment for a moment over some problem: the virus enters; they begin to see the matter with a mystical hypothesis hanging over its solution. Faith next dawns as an expansion of reason; and reason melts into mysticism.

The higher intelligence always communicates to the lower something that is very vividly expressive of truth—more expressive than the lower can say, or do, or dream for itself. And yet the lower never knows clearly to what phenomenon in nature the higher intellect has referred. This is seen, for instance, in Rembrandt’s etchings. Rembrandt has, perhaps, by a hair-drawn, almost chance-drawn line in the sky, represented the edge of some invisible atmospheric density that casts a glow of gloomy passion on the scene. We could neither see nor feel this effect in nature, yet we feel its power in the drawing. There are certain expressions in the New Testament that seem to refer to very definite experiences, things that are beyond our ken, as, for instance, when Christ says of children, that their angels do continually behold the face of my Father which is in Heaven—as if Christ saw the aura of children; or again where he says: Whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house; and if they receive you not, your peace shall return to you again. This last expression reminds us vaguely of the old patriarchal blessings that could be given only once. Another such expression, and one that we feel more at home with, is the evangelist’s statement that Christ felt as if virtue had gone out of him. The Gospels exert their power over the imagination of man because the story and sayings of Christ constantly refer to natural phenomena which surround human life at all times, but which are often not comprehensible to us because of our own limitations.

The message that comes out of the New Testament—I mean one of the messages that seem to come out of it—might be stated thus:—

Man is naturally good. Let him cease to contract his mind and muscles, cease to strive and insist, and he becomes benevolent. But more than this: Man has by nature a powerful intellect. Let him cease to contract his mind and muscles, cease to strive and insist, and his head grows clear. But more than this: Man is by nature fearless. His preoccupations keep him timid and in bondage to appearances. As his mind relaxes and his vision enlarges, as he becomes aware that he is himself the creature of a superior force moving in a larger universe than he had guessed, he gains that normal courage which nothing else can give.

The most important fact in the history of Christ’s influence is that he tears open every organization, whether founded on himself or not. He excites personality faster than any influence, even his own, can control or suppress it. The history of the Catholic and Protestant Churches is the history of schisms. It is through these schisms that private character in Europe has been developed. Christ is the fountain of character in Western Europe.

Christianity accomplishes itself; and this not through a grand, frontal attack on humanity, but rather through the story and sayings of Christ which dart about the earth, pierce men’s ears and heal them, run like elixirs through the languages and habits of men. They are couriers, arrows that live in ether and need no inns or baiting-places between their flights. The sayings have inexhaustible meanings, and many depths of meaning which the comfortable people of the world cannot hope to fathom—meanings that lie in ambush in the texts, and enter men’s hearts in the wake of grief. A man must have been disgraced and in jail to know many of them.

We sometimes ask ourselves, “In what possible manner can we resemble Christ—we who are born to social conditions, domestic habits, and natural endowments so different from those of Christ?” Certainly few of us are Jewish peasants, few prophets, few preachers. Yet there is one condition in which we all exactly resemble Christ; we never know or can know what step we are about to take. This pivotal moment is eternal, normal, the same in us as in him. I believe it is this fact that makes his words so effective. They always express the moment of a decision. They are always incidental, spontaneous—how shall I say?—a part of his soul’s drama. We overhear them; and they become part of ours.

We catch sight herein of the difference between the Eastern and the Western religions. The East has the wisdom of the cell but not of the marketplace. The East is more interested in ideas than in conduct. But Christ’s words pass into the practical part of men. The Gospels have left in the mind of Europe a nimbus of consciousness which cries, “Your activities are as much a part of your faith as your beliefs.”

One outcome of Christ’s influence is that through it the scourges of the world are turned into blessings. A man devotes himself to the alleviation of some particular form of suffering, and thereby becomes a saint who changes the moral temper of his town. What is it that has drawn out all this goodness in the man? It is due to crippled children. What has been the source of that other good Samaritan’s inexhaustible benevolence? Blindness and the blind. Whence came these miracles of healing? From disease.