What Is Your Life?

Baccalaureate Sermon by George H. Combs

What is your life? — Jas. 4: 14.

WHAT, indeed! There are many answers, ancient
and modern, and here’s one:

‘*Life is an arrow; therefore you must know
What mark to aim at, how to draw the bow,
Then draw it to its head and let it go.”

Henry van Dyke, whose lines I have just quoted,
is the author of a book called ” Straight Sermons.”
He is also a maker of straight verse — verse that ar-
row-like goes singing to the mark. Let us accept his
simile then. Life is an arrow, and, like the arrow,
must have an aim, must have a way traversable, must
have power to send it straight and on.

I. Life must have a mark.

A ship without a port, a traveler without a desti-
nation, a builder without a plan, a runner without a
goal, a marksman without a mark — that is tragedy.

What, then, is the aim of life? We are knocking
here at a big gate and yet need not knock with timid
hand. Life is no blind alley. It leads on by pre-
destined path to a great goal, and that goal, casting
aside all negative definitions, is the fullest possible
realization of the highest self. The end of life is ex-
pression and not repression, self-realization and not

Repressions, self-limitings, self-denials, are of value
only as they make for higher realization. The athlete
denies himself many bodily pleasures, but the merit
is not in the denial; the merit is in the higher realiza-
tions. The scholar denies himself ease and pleasure,
yet his reward is not in the sacrifice, but in the greater
garnered wisdom. God wants a full life, not an empty
life— a life whose lowest and whose topmost notes
are alike resonant and full. If the devil is not in
a vacuum, neither is God.

Here are we all at life’s beginnings with definite
potentialities, and our supreme concern is their edu-
cation and development. To make the most of the
life stuff given us is life’s true aim. To unfold our
native powers is our highest privilege.

This demands, at the very outset, the wisdom of
choice and the grace of exclusion. We can not de-
velop to their utmost stretch of possibilities all of
life’s gifts. If a man makes of his arm, his leg, all
that can be made of the arm, the leg, he has time
left for little else. To bring every organ and capa-
bility of the body to full-orbed development were a
task too great for our short lives. To cultivate to its
last inch of yielding richness a single faculty of the
mind — memory, say — would eat up all the hours.
Unable to bring all, we are shut up to selection, and
choice must be of the best.

This, then, is the mark at which to aim life’s ar-
rows ; the amplest, the largest development of the high-
est self — the sounding of the mountain notes with
trumpet force and volume — the living of a full life
whose fullness comes through Him who said, *’I have
come that ye might have life, and that ye might have
it more abundantly.”


II. Life, though it have a mark, must also have
a way.

A way hindered and barricaded, it may be, and yet
traversable. Here the arrow simile does not hold al-
together good. As the arrow speeds from the bow it
meets with no resistance save that of the soft air, but
life’s arrows too often fall split and battered at the
foot of an unyielding wall. Is it indeed like that?
Is there ever an effectual hindering of a noble aim?
Is any life aim foredoomed to failure? Is the way

If God has set before us all a single aim — the high-
est realization of the highest self — and then has thrust
us into a universe where the aim can not be realized
by all, then is he a partial God, and malignant too!
If any life is a predestined failure (and not to send
the arrow to the mark is a failure), then no sort of
casuistry, of suppleness of preacher explanations, can
justify the God of things as they are. To put into
the heart of a man an instinct, and then provide
no place in life for its realization, were unworthy
a God who creates the instinct of the birds to fly
and the fish to swim, and then provides the yield-
ing atmosphere and supporting sea. The good God
does not mock us so. Nor is there apology for a weak
yielding to the present-day dolorous gospel of man’s
helplessness. The world grows aghast at the doctrines
of exclusion and life-limitation, but accepts with
apathetic complacency a darker gospel when whispered
by the sibyl Fate.

It is undeniable that the shadow of fatalism rests
on much of our present-day literature. The great Eus-
sian fiction, the Ibsen dramas, Thomas Hardy’s novels
— in the heart of all this work and these workers is

the sense of a pitiless, close-grappling, slowly choking
Fate. Men are mere puppets, and an unseen force
pulls the strings. The something that pulls the strings
is It. It is blind. It has a marble heart. It hears no
prayers. “We think ourselves free and bravely flaunt
the delusions of our liberty, but It chuckles in the dark-
ness, knowing we are but slaves. We sit down at life’s
loom and with feverish fingers send the shuttle to
and fro. But in the morrow’s light we discern that
It designed the pattern and shot it through and
through with a hateful black. We are helpless. We
are in the malignant grip of the past. The flower
and the weed are no more surely nourished, and their
beauty or ugliness predetermined by the soil in which
they grow, than is man determined by the ancestral
soil, mold of a thousand years, out of which he

We are gripped, they say, by the things without.
The towering brig is on ocean ways with all its can-
vas spread. Shall it droop its wings or shall it fly?
That is as the wind determines. So on life’s sea our
boats lie idly rocking, or gloriously they sail on as the
council of the winds shall decree.

Our freedom, we are further told, is but as the
freedom of a drop of water in a glass tube.

False, false to the very core! Life’s failures are
not from without, but from within. The failure of
Solomon was not in the past; the past was noble,
heroic, filled with shepherds’ songs and psalmists’
prayers, trumpet-tongued in ethical appeal. The fail-
ure was within.

Life’s way is not blocked. Tolstoi, in his ”War
and Peace,” writing of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian

campaign, says that the whole campaign was against
Napoleon’s will, that he wanted to invade England,
that only a higher will pushed him on toward Mos-
cow’s flames. Was that higher will Kismet, Fate?
It is not thus. The power behind Napoleon was Na-
poleon. It was through the force of his own genius,
his own determination, that he climbed from the ob-
scurity of Corsica to the eminence of Versailles. It
was Napoleon, not Fate, that battered down Toulon,
climbed the Alps, fought the battle of the Pyramids,
and set high in the heavens his star of glory above
the field of Austerlitz. It was Napoleon, not Fate,
who, drunk with ambition, pitted his armies against
God’s almighty snows, blundered in reckonings and
in orders on the field of Waterloo, and who at last
in storm-girt Helena, his glory gone, out of his own
baffled ambitions and keen remorses wove the winding-
sheet for his own body, and sank self-slaughtered
in a self-digged grave.

III. Life must have an aim, must have power
to send it on.

The great bow of Ulysses means nothing without
Ulysses to bend it and send the arrow to the mark.
The cleared course is mockery, the goal but tantaliz-
ing, without a force to send fast the feet straight on.
The world’s supreme need is power.

And how comes power? When John Ruskin, the
great art critic and yet greater philosopher, looking
with almost adoration upon a great cathedral, was
asked by a friend why we do not build such great
cathedrals now, he answered, *’The men who built
these cathedrals were men of great convictions. ” Here
in a sentence is the philosophy of great living. All
true greatness is rooted in great convictions. Lack-

ing such greatness, we build meanly, whether it be
cathedral or character. As great convictions wax, men
kindle into nobleness of thought and word and deed,
and as great convictions wane, men shrivel into lit-
tleness in all their words and ways.

“What, then, are the convictions that forward men
in high enterprise? To begin, the conviction of an
ageless, endless life. The characteristic of all Chinese
pictures is their flatness, shallowness, fatal lackings
of depth. The canvas is a mere surface thing with-
out a single depth for the anchorage of a recollection.
Now, human life, without those noble perspectives and
subtle blends of light and shadow given by the sense
of eternity, like the Chinese picture, lacks depth, in-
terest and meaning. There is no possible greatness
for evanescence. The thing that lives only for the
hour, though it may not be without the hint of charm,
can never powerfully stir the life. There can be no
greatness without great dimensions, and if the life
of the human stops at the yellow grave, in such mean-
ness of dimensions can be found nothing truly great.
Let the life of man be bounded by the threescore
years and ten, and nothing truly heroic will spring
from his hands or brain. The tombs of Egypt’s kings
are noble because they were constructed to last
through the eternities and by those who dreamed that
they should never die. The picture that is painted
only for a day lives for but a day; the enduring
pictures are those whose colors were mixed with the
dream of eternity. The art that lasts was designed
to last, and the artist who has not wrought for pos-
terity will be forgotten by posterity. Only immortals
will build immortal temples.


” Leave now to dogs and apes;
Man has forever.”

Only those who are rich with that consciousness
can be great. The man who has ” forever” can do an
enduring work.

Again, self-realization is possible only to those to
whom self-realization is a high end and not merely
a procuring means. Virtue is its own reward. Work
is its own reward. We all need to know that the
good of work is not what it puts into our pockets, but
into our characters. The wage is of less concern than
the work. Life’s tasks may or may not have money
reward, but they all have character reward. The
young man’s chief concern should not be with what
the task may yield in gold, but what it may yield
in goodness. The toiler may be robbed of his money
wage, but if he has wrought sincerely he can not be
cheated out of his character reward. That which gets
into the blood is of greater value than that which gets
into the purse. Excellence needs no bonus of outside
commendation. Life’s fields are not strewn with gold
nuggets to enrich outwardly, but with disciplines to
enrich inwardly. The summum bonum is not in get-
ting, but in being.

The highest reward of faith is faith; of truthful-
ness, truthfulness; of courage, courage. ”The king-
dom of heaven is within you.” Heaven is no merely
extraneous and outside reward for right-doing, it is
the intrinsic and inside necessity and complement of
righteousness. Good thoughts, good words, good deeds
are the seeds from which spring the trees of life. Let
a man then come to the realization of his highest self,
not to say, ”Lord, now I am good; give me heaven as
a reward/’ but rather to say, “For the heaven Thou

hast permitted me to enter through my struggles,
Lord, I thank Thee.” The tallest angel near the throne
receives no higher wage than the coin of righteous-
ness. Heaven’s most bejeweled crown is the crown
of character. Goodness is God.

Yet, though this profound truth should have its
way with us, it by no means will crowd out that other
world-old incentive, the call of Duty. Herein is the
strength of a double call — the call of the work, the
call of God. *^Come up higher” is ever the call from
above to our too low lives. It is your duty to make
the most of yourself. You can not stop at mere sal-
vation. You are not merely to seek to save the soul
you have, but to save a soul that is worth the sav-
ing. What would you think of an athlete who cul-
tures his body merely for the sake of saving it! He
seeks not to conserve and save, but to enlarge and
develop. The scholar at his books with no higher
aim than the salvation of his mind from imbecility
were a sorry spectacle. Nor less abject and contempt-
ible the soul that seeks only the salvation of its little
self. ”Come up higher” is the insistent invitation.
Through struggles and disciplines, cross-bearings and
the bitterness of tears, strain towards a nobler, high-
er life. It is your duty.

This is a very antiquated gospel, I know. Duty,
we are told, is a quiet, old-fashioned divinity and soon
it shall be ejected from our modern Pantheons, that
the more comely divinity, Persuasion, may take its
place. ”No man,” said an advanced preacher not long
ago, ”can now make much of austere duty. The
oughts and ought nots no longer speak convincingly.
Sinai is a long way off. We must persuade man.”
Indeed! What a deliverance! Here impiety and im-

becility seem mixed in equal proportions. Analyze
conscience as yon will, and give it whatever physical
origins you will in your flippant philosophies, the eter-
nal granite truth abides, writ large in the constitu-
tion of the human soul as if in fire letters across the
sky, that man, in this voice we call Duty, feels the
impact of heavenly forces upon his soul, and only as
he yields to the mighty urge comes the realization
of his highest self.

The mighty movements that have convulsed the
world have received their great inspiration from this
supreme imperative. Whenever men have gone for-
ward in any enterprise, moved by a great sense of
duty, they have gone resistlessly. Let the human soul
be mastered by the conviction that God wills that a
work be done, and that soul is almost godlike in its

‘ ‘ God wills it, ‘ ‘ and before the gleaming crescent of
the Moslem the degenerate Christians give coward way.

”God wills it,” and the Crusade rolls its lava
flood against the walls of the Holy City.

”God wills it,” and the timid shepherd girl is
transformed into the warrior maid against whose val-
iant leadership the English fling their strength in

”God wills it,” and the obscure Cromwell is forged
into a live thunderbolt of heaven to strike down kings
and ancient wrongs.

Duty, an ineffectual voice? Beneath the sky of
God there is no other voice so sovereign — no voice
that speaks to our soul’s soul.

”I slept and dreamed that life was beauty;
I woke and found that life was duty. ‘ ‘

Both the dream and the waking were true. The
danger is in these days of smooth content that
we shall close our eyes to the morning truth and for-
get that life is duty.

Duty is ever heroic, but it demands no im-

”So near is glory to our dust,
So close is God to man.
When Duty whispers low, ‘Thou must,’
The youth replies: ‘I can.’ ”

You can, you can. Mark you, I did not say you
can do it easily, unstrivingly, but you can. It will
take striving, battling. God in heaven only knows
how fierce ofttimes, but you can do your duty.

”Then, welcome each rebuff
That turns earth’s smoothness rough.
Each sting that bids, nor sit, nor stand, but go.

Be our joys three parts pain!

Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe.”

One other great conviction I mention: through self-
realization are the durable satisfactions of life. This
phrase, ”the durable satisfactions of life,” coined by
one of our college presidents, is well worth your re-
membering. Life, beyond question, has its pleasures
along low levels. There is pleasure in drunkenness,
else men would not get drunk; there is pleasure in
debauchery, else men would not be debauchees; there
is pleasure in money-getting, else men would not wear
out their lives to get it. Let us admit that there is
a pleasure to be found on the planes of mere animal-
ism and of sin. If the devil’s bait were not good to
taste, no soul would grab at the hook.

But while there are satisfactions here, they are not
durable satisfactions. After passion has spent its force,
after debauchery has had its fling, after animalism has
sated itself, happiness dwells afar.

Even on the higher levels where is no curse of
wrong, durable satisfactions are not found. The
pleasures men get in money-making, in professional
and business advancements, in ”getting on,” as we
say, are not durable pleasures. Contemporary litera-
ture is choked with the sobs of disillusionment. But
there are satisfactions in Christ’s service that are
durable. ”Happy in Him?” Yes, and that happi-
ness stays.