There are some words that have a tragic history. To the hearing ear and to the understanding heart they whisper strange secrets about human progress. If we could follow them through all their changing meanings we should be reading the story of mankind. Nor, indeed, when we think of it, is this to be wondered at, or language is the echo of the soul. And whenever the soul of man has struggled heavenward I shall hear its echo high among the hills. The man who thoroughly knew the English tongue could almost sit down and write an English history. It is because we now rise and now fall that words become ennobled or debased.
Now one of the words that has a pitiful history is that word simple. It has wandered far from the simplicity of Christ. It has so changed its meaning and lost its early character that we are almost ashamed to use it in any other than a derogatory manner. Once, to be simple meant to be: free from guile . Simplicity, was the opposite of duplicity. But in the struggle with the world s sharp wits, the guileless man has generally fared so badly that the simple man has become the simpleton. I warrant you there was a world of holy meaning in the word innocent when Adam and Eve first felt the taint of sin. Yet now we look at the idiot, and we pity him, and we say, “He is an innocent. So once to be simple meant to be a Nathanael. And now it almost means to be a fool.
Great People Are Simple
And yet, if we have ever studied history at all, we must have been struck with a certain sweet simplicity about the characters of the very great—men. There is something of the child about the greatest; a certain freshness, a kind of sweet unconsciousness; a happy taking of themselves on trust; a sort of play-element throughout the drama. And all the time, powerfully, perhaps silently, they were swaying and steering this poor tossed world. Did you never feel that simplicity in Martin Luther? And did it never arrest you in George Washington? And did you never mark it in the great Duke of Wellington? One of the finest odes Tennyson ever wrote was his ode upon the death of that great duke. And I do not believe in all the noble verse of it, it rises to anything loftier than this:
Foremost captain of his time,
Rich in saving common-sense,
And, as the greatest only are,
In his simplicity sublime.
Sin Imitates Simplicity
The greatest souls, then, have been truly simple. It is that simple element that has charmed the world. And I cannot think of any better witness to the abiding charm of true simplicity than the way in which vice has always tried to imitate it. Make up your mind clearly on this point: that sin is never simple, it is subtle. No matter how we interpret the story of Eden, the insinuating serpent is still sin. All sin is subtle, intricate, involved; leading a man into an infinite maze. It can give a hundred reasons for its counsel, when a good conscience is content with one. Do you remember how the great poet of Germany in his immortal tragedy of Faust- do you remember how he pictures Mephistopheles as the master of a consummate subtilty? He is always changing, that evil incarnation. He is always compliant: he is never the same. To Margaret he is one thing, and to Faust another. He is exquisitely accommodating everywhere —until we feel afresh how subtle sin is, what an utter stranger to genuine simplicity! And when sin shams that it is very simple — and it is very fond of that device —we learn how attractive simplicity must be. It is a well-known practice of the hypocrite to make believe he is unusually candid. One of the last arts of an abandoned woman is to act like an innocent young girl again. IT is the unwilling tribute of the bad to that simplicity of soul that in charms the world, but which is lost when the eye ceases to be single and when the conscience ceases to be true.
The Simplicity of Christ
Now the most casual student of the life of Jesus must have noted the simplicity of Christ)In a sense far deeper than any other captain, our Lord is in His simplicity sublime. His name shall be called Wonderful, it is quite true. He was the Counselor, the everlasting King. But He was holy, harmless, undefiled; and a little child shall lead them, said the Prophet.
Think of His mode of life: was it not simple? It puts our artificial lives to shame There is a music in it, not like the music of the orchestra, but like the music of the brook under the trees. He loved John and Peter, not the Pharisee; and He drew to the children, not to the scribe, and it was (all so natural and simple) that the blind Jews said, this is not the Christ. Had He come greatly with the sound of a trumpet, they would have hailed Him and cried, Behold! Messiah cometh. But they missed the divinity of what was simple, and He came unto His own and they received Him not.
Think of His teaching: was not that simple too? It puts our sermons and our books to shame. There is a false simplicity that springs from lack of thought, and there is a spurious and forced simplicity that I have heard some ministers adopt when they began, with a smile, to the children, and how the children hate it! But preach to true.