Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 31


The Illusiveness of Life

Preached June 9, 1950

  Frederick W. Robertson

“By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” - Hebrews 11:8-10


Last Sunday we touched upon a thought which deserves further development. God promised Canaan to Abraham, and yet Abraham never inherited Canaan: to the last he was a wanderer there; he had no possession of his own in its territory; if he wanted even a tomb to bury his dead, he could only obtain it by purchase. This difficulty is expressly admitted in the text, “In the land of promise he sojourned as in a strange country;” he dwelt there in tents-in changeful, movable tabernacles-not permanent habitations; he had no home there.

It is stated in all its startling force, in terms still more explicit, in the 7th chapter of the Acts, 5th verse, “And He gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet He promised that He would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child.”

Now the surprising point is that Abraham, deceived, as you might almost say, did not complain of it as a deception; he was even grateful for the non-fulfillment of the promise: he does not seem to have expected its fulfillment; he did not look for Canaan, but for “a city which had foundations;” his faith appears to have consisted in disbelieving the letter, almost as much as in believing the spirit of the promise.

And herein lies a principle, which, rightly expounded, can help us to interpret this life of ours. God’s promises never are fulfilled in the sense in which they seem to have been given. Life is a deception; its anticipations, which are God’s promises to the imagination, are never realized; they who know life best, and have trusted God most to fill it with blessings, are ever the first to say that life is a series of disappointments. And in the spirit of this text we have to say that it is a wise and merciful arrangement which ordains it thus.

The wise and holy do not expect to find it otherwise-would not wish it otherwise; their wisdom consists in disbelieving its promises. To develop this idea would be a glorious task; for to justify God’s ways to man, to expound the mysteriousness of our present being, to interpret God-is not this the very essence of the ministerial office? All that I can hope, however, to-day, is not to exhaust the subject but to furnish hints for thought. Over-statements may be made, illustrations may be inadequate, the new ground of an almost untrodden subject may be torn up too rudely; but remember, we are here to live and die; in a few years it will be all over; meanwhile, what we have to do is to try to understand, and to help one another to understand, what it all means-what this strange and contradictory thing, which we call life, contains within it. Do not stop to ask, therefore, whether the subject was satisfactorily worked out; let each man be satisfied to have received a germ of thought which he may develop better for himself.


I. The deception of life’s promise.

II. The meaning of that deception.


Let it be clearly understood, in the first place, the promise never was fulfilled. I do not say the fulfillment was delayed. I say it never was fulfilled. Abraham had a few feet of earth, obtained by purchase-beyond that nothing; he died a stranger and a pilgrim in the land. Isaac had a little. So small was Jacob’s hold upon his country that the last years of his life were spent in Egypt, and he died a foreigner in a strange land. His descendants came into the land of Canaan, expecting to find it a land flowing with milk and honey; they found hard work to do-war and unrest, instead of rest and peace.

During one brief period, in the history of Israel, the promise may seem to have been fulfilled. It was during the later years of David and the earlier years of Solomon; but we have the warrant of Scripture itself for affirming, that even then the promise was not fulfilled. In the Book of Psalms, David speaks of a hope of entering into a future rest. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, quoting this passage, infers from it that God’s promise, had not been exhausted nor fulfilled by the entrance into Canaan; for he says, “If Joshua had given them rest, then would he not have spoken of another day.” Again, in this very chapter, after a long list of Hebrew saints- “These all died in faith, not having received the promises.” To none therefore had the promise been fulfilled. Accordingly writers on prophecy, in order to get over this difficulty, take for granted that there must be a future fulfillment, because the first was inadequate.

They who believe that the Jews will be restored to their native land, expect it on the express ground that Canaan has never been actually and permanently theirs. A certain tract of country-three hundred miles in length, by two hundred in breadth-must be given, or else they think the promise has been broken. To quote the expression of one of the most eloquent of their writers, “If there be nothing yet future for Israel, then the magnificence of the promise has been lost in the poverty of its accomplishment.”

I do not quote this to prove the correctness of the interpretation of the prophecy, but as an acknowledgement which may be taken so far as a proof that the promise made to Abraham has never been accomplished.

And such is life’s disappointment. Its promise is, you shall have a Canaan; it turns out to be a baseless airy dream-toil and warfare-nothing that we can call our own; not the land of rest by any means. But we will examine this in particulars.


1. Our senses deceive us; we begin life with delusion. Our senses deceive us with respect to distance, shape, and color. That which afar off seems oval turns out to be circular, modified by the perspective of distance; that which appears a speck, upon nearer approach becomes a vast body. To the earlier ages the stars presented the delusion of small lamps hung in space. The beautiful berry proves to be bitter and poisonous: that which apparently moves is really at rest: that which seems to be stationary is in perpetual motion: the earth moves: the sun is still. All experience is a correction of life’s delusions-a modification, a reversal of the judgment of the senses: and all life is a lesson on the falsehood of appearances.

2. Our natural anticipations deceive us-I say natural in contradistinction to extravagant expectations. Every human life is a fresh one, bright with hopes that will never be realized. There may be differences of character in these hopes; finer spirits may look on life as the arena of successful deeds, the more selfish as a place of personal enjoyment.

With man the turning-point of life may be a profession-with woman, marriage; the one gilding the future with the triumphs of intellect, the other with the dreams of affection; but in every case, life is not what any of them expects, but something else. It would almost seem a satire on existence to compare the youth in the outset of his career, flushed and sanguine, with the aspect of the same being when it is nearly done-worn, sobered, covered with the dust of life, and confessing that its days have been few and evil. Where is the land flowing with milk and honey?

With our affections it is still worse, because they promise more. Man’s affections are but the tabernacles of Canaan-the tents of a night; not permanent habitations even for this life. Where are the charms of character, the perfection, and the purity, and the truthfulness, which seemed so resplendent in our friend? They were only the shape of our own conceptions-our creative shaping intellect projected its own fantasies on him: and hence we outgrow our early friendships; outgrow the intensity of all. we dwell in tents; we never find a home, even in the land of promise. Life is an unenjoyable Canaan, with nothing real or substantial in it.

3. Our expectations, resting on revelation, deceive us. The world’s history has turned round two points of hope; one, the first-the other, the second coming of the Messiah. The magnificent imagery of Hebrew prophecy had described the advent of the Conqueror; He came-“a root out of a dry ground, with no form or comeliness: and when they saw Him there was no beauty in Him that they should desire Him.” The victory, predicted in such glowing terms, turned out to be the victory of submission-the law of our humanity, which wins by gentleness and love. The promise in the letter was unfulfilled. For ages the world’s hope has been the second advent. The early church expected it in their own day. “We, which are alive, and remain until the coming of our Lord.”

The Saviour Himself had said, “This generation shall not pass till all things be fulfilled.” Yet the Son of Man has never come; or rather, He has been ever coming. Unnumbered times the judgment-eagles have gathered together over corruption ripe for condemnation. Times innumerable the separation has been made between good and bad. The promise has not been fulfilled, or it has been fulfilled, but in either case anticipation has been foiled and disappointed.

There are two ways of considering this aspect of life. One is the way of sentiment; the other is the way of faith. The sentimental way is trite enough. Saint, sage, sophist, moralist, and preacher, have repeated in every possible image, till there is nothing new to say, that life is a bubble, a dream, a delusion, a phantasm. The other is the way of faith: the ancient saints felt as keenly as any moralist could feel the brokenness of its promises; they confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims here; they said that they had here no continuing city; but they did not mournfully moralize on this; they said it cheerfully, and rejoiced that it was so. They felt that all was right; they knew that the promise itself had a deeper meaning: they looked undauntedly for “a city which hath foundations.”


II. The second inquiry, therefore, is the meaning of this delusiveness.

1. It serves to allure us on. Suppose that a spiritual promise had been made at first to Israel; imagine that they had been informed at the outset that God’s rest was inward; that the promised land is only found in the Jerusalem which is above-not material, but immaterial. That rude, gross people, yearning after the fleshpots of Egypt-willing to go back into slavery, so as only they might have enough to eat and drink-would they have quitted Egypt on such terms? Would they have begun one single step of that pilgrimage which was to find its meaning in the discipline of ages?

We are led through life as we are allured upon a journey. Could a man see his route before him-a flat, straight road, unbroken by bush, or tree, or eminence, with the sun’s heat burning down upon it, stretched out in dreary monotony-he could scarcely find energy to begin his task; but the uncertainty of what may be seen beyond the next turn keeps expectation alive. The view that may be seen from yonder summit-the glimpse that may be caught, perhaps, as the road winds round yonder knoll-hopes like these, not far distant, beguile the traveller on from mile to mile, and from league to league.

In fact, life is an education. The object for which you educate your son is to give him strength of purpose, self-command, discipline of mental energies; but you do not reveal to your son this aim of his education; you tell him of his place in his class, of the prizes at the end of the year, of the honors to be given at college.

These are not the true incentives to knowledge; such incentives are not the highest-they are even mean, and partially injurious; yet these mean incentives stimulate and lead on, from day to day and from year to year, by a process the principle of which the boy himself is not aware of. So does God lead on, through life’s unsatisfying and false reward, ever educating: Canaan first; then the hope of a Redeemer; then the millennial glory.

Now what is remarkable in this is, that the delusion continued to the last; they all died in faith, not having received the promises; all were hoping up to the very last, and all died in faith, not in realization: for thus God has constituted the human heart. It never will be believed that this world is unreal. God has mercifully so arranged it, that the idea of delusion is incredible. You may tell the boy or girl as you will that life is a disappointment; yet however you may persuade them to adopt your tone, and catch the language of your sentiment, they are both looking forward to some bright distant hope-the rapture of the next vacation, or the unknown joys of the next season-and throwing into it an energy of expectation which only a whole eternity is worth. You may tell the man who has received the heart-shock from which in this world he will not recover, that life has nothing left; yet the stubborn heart still hopes on, ever near the prize- “wealthiest when most undone:” he has reaped the whirlwind, but he will go on still, till life is over, sowing the wind.

Now observe the beautiful result which comes from this indestructible power of believing in spite of failure. In the first centuries, the early Christians believed that the millennial advent was close; they heard the warning of the apostle, brief and sharp, “The time is short.” Now suppose that, instead of this, they had seen all the dreary page of Church history unrolled; suppose that they had known that after two thousand years the world would have scarcely spelled out three letters of the meaning of Christianity, where would have been those gigantic efforts, that life spent as on the very brink of eternity, which characterize the days of the early Church, and which was, after all, only the true life of man in time? It is thus that God has led on His world. He has conducted it as a father leads his child, when the path homeward lies over many a dreary league. He suffers him to beguile the thought of time, by turning aside to pluck now and then a flower, to chase now a butterfly; the butterfly is crushed, the flower fades, but the child is so much nearer home, invigorated and full of health, and scarcely wearied yet.

2. This non-fulfillment of promise fulfills it in a deeper way. The account we have given already, were it to end there, would be insufficient to excuse the failure of life’s promise; by saying that it allures us would be really to charge God with deception. Now life is not deception, but illusion. We distinguish between illusion and delusion. We may paint wood so as to be taken for stone, iron, or marble; this is delusion: but you may paint a picture, in which rocks, trees, and sky are never mistaken for what they seem, yet produce all the emotion which real rocks, trees, and sky would produce. This is illusion, and this is the painter’s art: never for one moment to deceive by attempted imitation, but to produce a mental state in which the feelings are suggested which the natural objects themselves would create. Let us take an instance drawn from life.

To a child a rainbow is a real thing-substantial and palpable; its limb rests on the side of yonder hill; he believes that he can appropriate it to himself; and when, instead of gems and gold hid in its radiant bow, he finds nothing but damp mist, cold, dreary drops of disappointment-that disappointment tells that his belief has been delusion.

To the educated man that bow is a blessed illusion, yet it never once deceives; he does not take it for what it is not; he does not expect to make it his own; he feels its beauty as much as the child could feel it, nay infinitely more-more even from the fact that he knows that it will be transient; but besides and beyond this, to him it presents a deeper loveliness; he knows the laws of light, and the laws of the human soul which gave it being. He has linked it with the laws of the universe, and with the invisible mind of God; and it brings to him a thrill of awe, and the sense of a mysterious, nameless beauty, of which the child did not conceive. It is illusion still; but it has fulfilled the promise. In the realm of spirit, in the temple of the soul, it is the same. All is illusion; “but we look for a city which hath foundations;” and in this the promise is fulfilled.

And such was Canaan to the Israelites. To some, doubtless, it was delusion. They expected to find their reward in a land of milk and honey. They were bitterly disappointed, and expressed their disappointment loudly enough in their murmurs against Moses, and their rebellion against his successors. But to others, as to Abraham, Canaan was the bright illusion which never deceived, but forever shone before as the type of something more real. And even taking the promise literally, though they built in tents, and could not call a foot of land their own, was not its beauty theirs? Were not its trellised vines, and glorious pastures, and rich olive-fields, ministers to the enjoyment of those who had all in God, though its milk, and oil, and honey, could not be enjoyed with exclusiveness of appropriation? Yet over and above and beyond this, there was a more blessed fulfillment of the promise; there was “a city which had foundations”-built and made by God-towards which the anticipation of this Canaan was leading them. The kingdom of God was forming in their souls, forever disappointing them by the unreal, and teaching them that what is spiritual, and belongs to mind and character, alone can be eternal.

We will illustrate this principle from the common walks of life. The principle is, that the reward we get is not the reward for which we worked, but a deeper one; deeper and more permanent. The merchant labors all his life, and the hope which leads him on is perhaps wealth: well, at sixty years of age he attains wealth; is that the reward of sixty years of toil? Ten years of enjoyment, when the senses can enjoy no longer-a country-seat, splendid plate, a noble establishment? Oh, no! a reward deeper than he dreamed of-habits of perseverance: a character trained by industry: that is his reward. He was carried on from year to year by, if he were wise, illusion; if he were unwise, delusion; but he reaped a more enduring substance in himself.

Take another instance: the public man, warrior, or statesman, who has served his country, and complains at last, in bitter disappointment, that his country has not fulfilled his expectations in rewarding him-that is, it has not given him titles, honors, wealth. But titles, honors, wealth-are these the rewards of well-doing? can they reward it? would it be well-doing if they could? To be such a man, to have the power of doing such deeds, what could be added to that reward by having? This same apparent contradiction, which was found in Judaism, subsists too in Christianity; we will state it in the words of an apostle: “Godliness is profitable for all things; having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.” Now for the fulfillment: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, then are we of all men most miserable.”

Godliness is profitable; but its profit, it appears, consists in finding that all is loss: yet in this way you teach your son. You will tell him that if he will be good all men will love him. You say that “Honesty is the best policy,” yet in your heart of hearts you know that you are leading him on by a delusion. Christ was good. Was he loved by all? In proportion as he, your son, is like Christ, he will be loved, not by the many, but by the few. Honesty is not the best policy; the commonplace honesty of the market-place may be-the vulgar honesty which goes no farther than paying debts accurately; but that transparent Christian honesty of a life which in every act is bearing witness to the truth, that is not the way to get on in life-the reward of such a life is the cross. Yet you were right in teaching your son this: you told him what was true; truer than he could comprehend. It is better to be honest and good; better than he can know or dream: better even in this life; better by so much as being good is better than having good. But, in a rude coarse way, you must express the blessedness on a level with his capacity; you must state the truth in a way which he will inevitably interpret falsely. The true interpretation nothing but experience can teach.

And this is what God does. His promises are true, though illusive; far truer than we at first take them to be. We work for a mean, low, sensual happiness, all the while He is leading us on to a spiritual blessedness, unfathomably deep. This is the life of faith. We live by faith, and not by sight. We do not preach that all is disappointment-the dreary creed of sentimentalism; but we preach that nothing here is disappointment, if rightly understood. We do not comfort the poor man, by saying that the riches that he has not now he will have hereafter-the difference between himself and the man of wealth being only this, that the one has for time what the other will have for eternity; but what we say is, that that which you have failed in reaping here you never will reap, if you expected the harvest of Canaan. God has no Canaan for His own; no milk and honey for the luxury of the senses: for the city which hath foundations is built in the soul of man. He in whom Godlike character dwells has all the universe for his own-“All things,” saith the apostle, “are yours; whether life or death, or things present, or things to come; if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”