Abstract of a Sermon Preached on August 2, 1998
I'm going to do something this morning that I've never done before. I'm going to preach on an old proverb. I've preached from a hymn, but never from an old proverb
—-at least, not so far as I remember. There's another old proverb, however, that says “Never say never.” The meaning of this is never to say “I never will,” for we change, especially when we're young, and we find ourselves doing the thing we said we would never do. But as we get older this proverb takes on another meaning, and we learn not to say, “I never did.” The memory shrinks, and the forgetory expands, and we don't know what we have done.*
At any rate, the proverb I want to speak on is this: “Many a one leaves the roast, who afterwards longs for the smoke of it.” I've thought a good deal on this during the past five years, since so many folks left us. The proverb is not Scripture, but many of these old proverbs embody much of the wisdom of Scripture, and this one certainly does. The primary example in the Bible of one who left the roast and afterward longed for the smoke of it is the prodigal son. Observe, the proverb does not say that many a one who leaves the roast afterwards longs for the roast again. No, he longs only for the smoke of it. The prodigal left the place of a son, and afterward longed for the place of a servant.
Now there is a reason why those who leave the roast are so often compelled to long for the smoke of it. They leave the roast, of course, expecting to find something better. I can't think of anything better than a roast, so I'll have to say they leave the roast expecting to find a better roast, but instead they find a worse one, or no roast at all. They leave a good place, and find themselves in a bad one. They find themselves in a place so much worse than the one they left that they are compelled to long, not for the roast, but only for a whiff of the smoke of it. Nothing is more common than for discontented souls to leave a better place for a worse one. That of course is not their intent, but they have no safeguard against it, for the fact is, discontented souls always see their present place as worse, and the other place as better. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Those who have been on the farm will understand this. The cows are always reaching their necks as far as they can through the fence, for the grass on the other side, though the grass over there is just the same as the grass under their feet.
Men are no different than cows. They always see the other place as better than this one, though in fact it may be a good deal worse. How is this? Very simply, they focus their vision on the disadvantages and inconveniences of their present place, and ignore all the good in it, while they look at the good in the other place, and ignore the evil. In plain English, there is nothing objective in their viewpoint. They look with the eyes of passion, not the eyes of reason. Their deficiency of character warps their vision. That deficiency consists primarily of ingratitude. If they were properly thankful for the good which they have in a good place, if they allowed that good to fill their hearts and their vision, they wouldn't be preoccupied with the evils or disadvantages, and so would not be pining for a change.
This deficiency of character plainly appears in the prodigal son. The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most precious things in the Bible, appealing to all the deepest and most tender emotions of our souls, yet for years I delighted in this parable, and preached on it, without seeing one of its most exquisite features. I always began with the prodigal in the far country, as a most fitting picture of man as he is by nature. The beginning of the parable I regarded as merely setting the stage. I then heard a sermon on the subject by Bob Jones
—-the first Bob Jones —-in which he began at the beginning, with the prodigal still in his father's house. He pointed out that the proof that the prodigal didn't have any character is that he was discontented in a good place. He was in a good place, and he wanted out of it. This is as much proof of his bad character as his riotous living in the far country. He was ungrateful. He didn't value or appreciate the good which he had. He was longing for something else, and he was willing to sacrifice all the real good which he had in order to go after it. In this he differed nothing from Esau.
And you know, it does not take much to make discontented souls discontented. Put some of these souls in Paradise itself, with everything the heart could desire, with beautiful birds singing over their heads, and delicious, juicy peaches and pears hanging all around them at shoulder height, with raspberries as big as apples, and one fly buzzing about their heads, and they would think of nothing but that fly, until they would be saying, “Oh! I just need to get out of this place!”
This is how the devil worked with Eve, to make her discontented even in Paradise. He occupied her with the one disadvantage of her place. He directed all her vision to the one thing of which God had deprived her, putting out of her mind all the good with which she was surrounded. Her one disadvantage became her obsession. She must have that one thing which she could not have where she was. Thus gratitude was swallowed up by discontent.
The prodigal son in the Father's house was nothing different from Eve in the garden. They were both in a good place, and both dissatisfied there, and both for the same reason. They were under restraint. They were under authority, and they didn't like it there. There are only two things that move men to leave a good place. Those two things are lust and pride. Eve wanted something which was forbidden her in Paradise. The prodigal wanted something he couldn't have in the Father's house. I suppose they were both moved primarily by lust. Others are moved primarily by pride. They don't particularly want anything different from what they have in the good place, only they want it independently. I believe it is primarily pride which is at the bottom of the phenomenon called church hopping. People will leave a good church, and go hunting for another just like the one they have left, only without the restraint or the authority which they have left.
But those who leave a good place usually profess that they are going out to find a better one. It most often happens, however, that they find instead a worse one. One reason for this is that there is a God in heaven, and a God who will not be mocked. When men are ungrateful and unappreciative of the good place he has given them, and must leave it for a “better,” he makes it his business to put them in a worse. When men leave the roast, he makes it his business to make them long for the smoke of it.
But another reason why those who leave a good place often find a worse one lies in the discontented souls themselves. The passions of lust or pride are too strong to allow reason to be heard. Those passions warp their vision. The bad place on the other side of the fence looks better to them than the good place they are in. They trade in a Cadillac for a Volkswagon, so they can have a bigger car. This is common, especially in young people. A little driving in the Volkswagon, however, usually serves to teach them that the Cadillac was bigger after all.
Pride and lust work hand in hand in discontented souls, but one or the other of them will usually predominate. Where lust predominates, the hankering for the grass on the other side of the fence may predominate. Where pride predominates, it is only the desire to be outside the fence. Pride leaps the fence merely to be outside, though it may know well enough there is nothing better on the other side. Those who leave the roast for swine's husks purely on the basis of lust are more easily cured. Those who do so for pride's sake may be well nigh incurable. They will drive the Volkswagon all their days, and stoutly maintain that it is bigger than the Cadillac. In either case the cure will be found at the end of a long, hard road of bitter experience. This is where the prodigal son found it. This is where Naomi found it. She left the “house of bread” (Bethlehem) for the land of Moab, and came back saying, “The Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me.” Those who leave the house of bread for the sake of lust will have a long and bitter road ahead, but those who leave it for pride's sake will probably have a much longer and more bitter one.
But there is a better way than any of this. Instead of acting on the wrong passions, we ought to cultivate the right ones. The right ones are gratitude for a good place, and, if the place is not so good as we would like, faith and patience. This was David's way when he dwelt in the wilderness, and in dens and caves of the earth. This was Joseph's way when he languished in the prison. But pride and lust and unbelief make men impatient. They will not wait for the Lord to improve their place, or give them a better one, but must off to find one themselves. Pride and lust would have slain Saul and taken the kingdom
—-and David might well have pleaded that it was no pride in him which supposed he was more fit for the throne than Saul was —-but faith and patience waited. Another old proverb would serve impatient and rash folks well, if they would but heed it. It says, “A stone that is fit for the wall, is not left in the way.” And observe, this is not true merely because the world has found out the truth of it. It is true because men generally recognize true worth, and if men do not, God does. It is true therefore because there is a God in heaven. By faith we may securely take the lower place, for if there is a God in heaven, and we are fit for a higher place, God will surely say to us, “Go up higher.” This he will do in his own time, however, and pride and lust will never wait for him. Pride and lust will never lie in the field, but must climb up to find a place in the wall, whether they are fit for the wall or not. But if we thus act on the wrong passions, and gad about to find a better place for ourselves, God will often insure that we find a worse one. If we cultivate the right passions, and make it our business to be fit for the better place which we want, God will give us that better place, when patience has had its perfect work.
Patience had its perfect work in David and in Joseph. Impatience had its perfect work in the prodigal son, and in many another who has left a good place for a bad one. Two different men have told me, when they left this church
—-one of them in a flood of tears —-that they had no hope of finding another church like it, and yet they must be gone. They were leaving a good place, in other words, believing in their own hearts that they could only find a worse one —-deliberately leaving a better place for a worse one. I am not sure what moved one of them —-unless it were his wife. The other, I believe, simply wanted to be somebody. He wanted a place for which he wasn't fit, and off he went to look for one. He would have done better to labor to deserve the place which he wanted —-for he could certainly have had it where he was if he had been fit for it. But pride always thinks itself fit, and so thinks itself deprived of what it deserves.
But I want you to understand that it is not always wrong to leave a good place, or to seek a better. It is not wrong for a preacher to leave a small place of ministry for a larger one. God may call him to “go up higher,” but I can tell you this, that the man who will do well in such a move is probably the man who was content where he was. He has the ability to judge objectively of the place he is in, and of the place to which he goes.
But there is not necessarily any wrong in leaving a good place for a better. No place on earth is perfect. There was a famine even in the “house of bread” when Naomi left it. Not that she necessarily ought to have left it on that account. God can sustain the godly, even in a famine, without their going to Moab. But no place on earth is perfect, and sometimes we may find a better place, and be quite right in taking it. Paul says in First Corinthians 7:20, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called,” and in verse 24, “Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” Thus he teaches us to be content where we are, and to stay there, though he knows very well that no situation on earth is perfect. Yet still he allows for change. Indeed, in some cases he positively requires change. “Therein abide with God,” he says, but we cannot abide “with God” in every situation. Conscience and principle positively require us to leave some situations, though in many cases what is called principle would be more accurately called pride.
Paul says in verse 21, “Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.” “Care not for it.” The place is surely not the best, but it is good enough. You can do the work of the Lord there. There are even advantages to servitude which freedom cannot give us. Freedom from servitude does not give us freedom from care, but rather adds to our cares. The servant does not have to pay the rent or the electric bill, but he will have to pay them when he is free. Still, freedom is better than servitude, and Paul does not forbid us to leave a lower place for a higher, or a good place for a better.
You will observe that Paul gives two pieces of advice here. First “Care not for it,” and then “use it rather.” I think I see in these the key to leaving a good place and finding a better. It most often happens that those who leave a good place find a worse one. Those who leave the roast find swine's husks. The key to preventing this is “Care not for it.” The man who is contented in his place can view the other place with the eyes of reason. The discontented can see only with the eyes of passion, and can never see anything rightly.
Thus it was with the prodigal son. The far country looked better to him than the Father's house. A full experience of the far country, however, taught him otherwise, and he came at length to that most precious resolve, “I will arise and go to my Father.” But observe what immediately precedes this. It was “when he came to himself” that he said, “I will arise and go to my Father.” “When he came to himself,” that is, when he came to his senses, when he learned to view both the Father's house and the far country through the eyes of reason, then he said, “How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger.” This is the voice of reason. This is viewing both the good place which he had left and the bad place which he had found with the eyes of reason. “When he came to himself,” he longed for the smoke of the roast he had left. A contented heart, coupled with the gratitude which his good place called for, would have enabled him to see with the eyes of reason before he left the roast, and he would never have left it at all.
Still we must allow that it is sometimes quite right to leave a good place for a better. “It is better to marry than to burn,” though the single have advantages which the married will never have, and the married have cares of which the single know nothing. And “if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.” Freedom is better than servitude, though it will bring cares and responsibilities which servants never know. We may quite legitimately leave a good place for a better, and it is precisely a contented and grateful heart which will enable us to do so. Our first business ought to be to cultivate contentment and gratitude where we are, while we look to God to better our state, rather than to gad about for a better place. Those who do the latter are always in imminent danger of falling into a worse place.
And let us understand, contentment and gratitude must be carefully cultivated. They are not natural to the fallen heart of man. Sin entered Paradise through the door of discontent, and so it entered heaven itself, in the heart of the devil. He was discontented in heaven itself, and precisely because he was not in charge there. And the image of the devil is so deeply stamped on the fallen heart of man that the same discontent reigns everywhere, and for the same reason. It is especially rife in America, where the self-pleasing notions of liberty and independence have been feeding and fattening everybody's pride and self-will for two centuries. That pride and self-will make every man discontented in every situation, no matter how good, so long as he is not in charge. He would rather drive the Volkswagon than ride in the Cadillac. If he cannot get a Volkswagon to drive, he will push a wheelbarrow
—-and swear too that the wheelbarrow is better than the Cadillac.
Now if this discontent brought sin into Paradise, and into heaven itself, how much more is it likely to move us to sin on this poor groaning and travailing earth. There is no Paradise here, though there is something in the heart of every one of us which cannot but long for it. It is the inveterate bent of our hearts to scour the globe in search of Utopia. That disposition will be well used if it moves us to find our rest and our delight in heaven, but most of us are looking for Utopia on earth, where we are sure to be disappointed. Our proverb gives us a subtle hint of this. The fact is, every roast has its smoke
—-for this proverb was no doubt current before man graduated to “cooking with gas.” But even “cooking with gas” —-even all the conveniences of modern technology —-can give us no Paradise on earth. There is no Paradise here. God drove man out of Paradise so soon as man sinned, and God has no intention of giving us a Paradise here and now, in the presence of sin. Another old proverb says, “Wherever a man dwell, he shall be sure to have a thorn-bush near his door.” If you find a place without a thorn-bush, God will plant one there as soon as you move in. You cannot find a Paradise on the earth, and God will not give you one.
But you can make your own Paradise. Not by altering your circumstances, or by leaving one place for another, but by gratitude and contentment. The thankful, contented soul is in Paradise everywhere, while the discontented soul would be unhappy in Paradise itself. I am reluctant to use myself as an example in a matter like this, but it just occurs to me that I was out in the country the other day, in the county forest, praying and meditating and picking berries. The flies were plentiful, buzzing about my head and sitting on my arms. The mosquitoes were biting my arms and my back. The sun was too hot. There wasn't much breeze, and I was hot and tired. The thorns were scratching my arms and pricking my fingers. And do you know what I did? Again and again my heart would well up with praise, and I would say, “God, I thank you for this place. I thank you for the peace and quiet here. I thank you for the berries. I thank you that I can be here, alone with my God.” When a little breeze would blow to cool me, I would thank God for the breeze. When a cloud came over the sun to give me some shade, I would thank God for the cloud. I never complained to him about the thorns or flies or mosquitoes. I was too occupied with the pleasant things to think much about the unpleasant. I have afflictions enough, reproach enough, poverty enough, and above all, disappointments enough, and yet I can tell you honestly that the word which is constantly on my lips, more than anything and everything else, is “Thank you, Father.” You can't find a Paradise without, but you can make one within. And those who have that Paradise of contentment and gratitude within are in no danger of leaving the roast for the swine's husks. Those who indulge their pride and lust are always in danger. They are so peeved by the smoke that they can't enjoy the roast while they have it, and to avoid the smoke they leave the roast. But it is the way of God to give such souls more smoke and less roast in their new place, and they ought indeed to thank him if he gives them all smoke and no roast, for this works to cure the real problem, which was not in their place, but in their heart.
* I was afterward informed that I have preached on "Man's extremity is God's opportunity."