He Died Early in the Smile of God
Robert Murray McCheyne (1813–1843)
Robert Murray McCheyne was a local pastor in Dundee, Scotland, who died in 1843 at the age of 29. No extraordinary events in his life made him likely to be remembered. But he had a very precious friend, Andrew Bonar, a nearby pastor. And within two years Andrew had published Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray McCheyne. It is still in print, and here we are 176 years after McCheyne’s death, encouraged and inspired by his life.
What was it about McCheyne’s short, and in many ways ordinary, life that gave it the force that created the book (and now books) that preserves his legacy to our day?
The Rose and the Thorn
I suggest that there was a double key to the force of McCheyne’s life: the preciousness of Jesus and the pain of a thorn.
In McCheyne’s description of his teenage years, he said, “I kissed the Rose nor thought about the thorn” — meaning, “I indulged in all the amusing and beautiful pleasures of the world, and didn’t give a thought to sickness and suffering and death.” But after his conversion, he spoke often of Jesus as his Rose of Sharon, and he lived in almost constant awareness of the thorn of his sickness and that his time might be short. He said in one of his sermons,
Set not your heart on the flowers of this world; for they have all a canker in them. Prize the Rose of Sharon . . . more than all; for he changeth not. Live nearer to Christ than to the saints, so that when they are taken from you, you may have him to lean on still. (Sermons of Robert Murray McCheyne)
McCheyne lived only the morning of his life: he died before he was 30. His effectiveness, however, was not frustrated by this fact but empowered by it. Because of his tuberculosis, he lived with the strong sense that he would die early. So the double key to his life is the preciousness of Jesus, the Rose, intensified by the pain of the thorn, the sickness and the shortness of his life.
McCheyne was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 21, 1813. He grew up in an atmosphere with high moral standards, but was, by his own testimony, “devoid of God.” When he went to the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14, he studied classics. He was kissing the rose of classical learning, and ignoring the thorn of suffering and death.
But all that changed in 1831 when he was 18 years old. David, Robert’s oldest brother, was neither spiritually nor physically well. In the summer of that year, he sank into a deep depression and died on July 8. Suddenly, the thorn of the rose stabbed McCheyne through the heart. All the beauty of the rose he was living for wilted. And by God’s grace, he saw another Rose in what happened to David.
In the days leading up to his death, David found a profound peace through the blood of Jesus. Bonar said that “joy from the face of a fully reconciled Father above lighted up [David’s dying] face” (Memoir). McCheyne saw it, and everything began to change. He had seen a rose other than classical learning. And he saw it as beautiful, not in spite of the thorn, but because of it. The thorn pierced him awake.
A Passion for Holiness and Evangelism
Four months after the death of his brother, McCheyne enrolled in the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh University, November 1831. There he met the man who would have the greatest influence on his life and ministry, Thomas Chalmers.
Chalmers pressed all of his great learning into the service of holiness and evangelism. He warned McCheyne and the other students of “the white devil” and “the black devil” — the black devil leading to “fleshly sins” of the world, and the white devil to “spiritual sins” of self-righteousness. And he made the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners the central power for this holiness.
Chalmers was also deeply burdened about the poverty in the slums of Edinburgh and how little gospel witness there was. He established the Visiting Society and recruited McCheyne and his friends to join. This threw McCheyne into a world he had never seen as an upper-middle-class university student. It awakened in him a sense of urgency for those cut off from the gospel. On March 3, 1834, two and a half years into his divinity studies, he wrote,
Such scenes I never before dreamed of. . . . “No man careth for our souls” is written over every forehead. Awake, my soul! Why should I give the hours and days any longer to the vain world, when there is such a world of misery at the very door? Lord, put thine own strength in me; confirm every good resolution; forgive my past long life of uselessness and folly. (Memoir)
So McCheyne would take away from his time in divinity school a passion for holiness and a passion for evangelism. These would never leave him and would become defining impulses of his life — all of it motivated by the beauty of the Rose, and all of it intensified by the thorn of suffering.
Uneventful, Useful Life
The last day of McCheyne’s divinity lectures was March 29, 1835. He was just shy of being 22 years old. And that fall he was called to be the assistant minister in the double parish of Larbert and Dunipace. He served there as an assistant until the call came from St. Peter’s Church in Dundee in August 1836. There McCheyne served as the pastor until his death six and a half years later.
That’s the simple sum of his professional life: a student till he was 22, an assistant pastor for a year, and a senior pastor for six years. As I have tried to think through what makes such an uneventful life so useful even 176 years after his death, it isn’t any extraordinary event in his life. Rather, it is his extraordinary passion for Christ — for the Rose — and for holiness and for lost people, all intensified by the shortness of life — the thorn. And all this passion preserved in powerful, picturesque language. He is still influencing us because of the words that came out of his mouth, not the events of his life.
So let’s listen to him concerning the pursuit of holiness and concerning his communion with God through the word and prayer.
Take Ten Looks at Christ
God had given McCheyne the gospel key to pursuing personal holiness. He received it through the teaching of Chalmers. Chalmers was very concerned about excessive introspection in the pursuit of holiness. He knew that a believer cannot make progress in holiness without basing it on the assurance of salvation, and yet the effort to look into our sinful hearts for some evidences of grace usually backfires.
Chalmers said that glimpses into the dark room of the heart alone give no good prospect. Instead, he said we should
take help from the windows. Open the shutters and admit the sun. So if you wish to look well inwardly, look well out. . . . This is the very way to quicken it. Throw widely open the portals of faith and in this, every light will be admitted into the chambers of experience. The true way to facilitate self-examination is to look believingly outwardly. (Introduction to The Christian’s Great Interest, 6)
McCheyne had written that down in a class and underlined the last sentence. So it is not surprising to hear him give his own counsel in similar terms: “Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. . . . Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love. And repose in his almighty arms” (Memoir).
This was the basic strategy in the pursuit of holiness. So when McCheyne spoke what are probably his most famous words, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness,” he meant not only that they need a pastor who is morally upright, but that they need a pastor who is walking in constant communion with Christ, and being changed into Christ’s likeness by that constant fellowship. Which brings us now finally to the way he cultivated that constant communion with Christ.
Let the First Face Be God’s
McCheyne has much to say about the disciplines of meditating on God’s word and praying. His scheduled disciplines aimed at fixing the habit in his heart of living in constant communion with Christ. He had formed the habit of rising early to read the Scriptures and pray, and he tried to maintain this to the end of his life. He loved to meet Jesus early. He journaled, “Rose early to seek God and found him whom my soul loveth. Who would not rise early to meet such company?” He wrote to a student, “Never see the face of man till you have seen his face who is our life, our all” (Memoir).
And when he spoke of seeing the face of God, he had in mind seeing God in the word of God, the Bible. He wrote to Horatius Bonar, Andrew’s brother, “I love the word of God, and find it the sweetest nourishment to my soul” (Memoir). The written word became the window through which he gazed on the glories of Christ — the beauties of the Rose. This was the key to his constant communion with Jesus, which was the key to his holiness and preaching.
But communion goes both ways, and prayer was essential to McCheyne’s power. Both the word of God read and the word of God preached depend on prayer for their power. Prayer was so crucial to his power in preaching that he was jealous to discern quickly any hindrance to prayer. One of the measures that McCheyne used to discern if he was too much in love with the world was by noticing the effect it had on his prayer and Bible reading: “Brethren, if you are ever so much taken up with any enjoyment that it takes away your love for prayer or for your Bible . . . then you are abusing this world. Oh! Sit loose to this world’s joy: ‘the time is short’” (Sermons).
By this means of word and prayer, the Rose of Sharon became more and more beautiful and precious to McCheyne. And all the while, these acts of devotion were being intensified by the thorn of his suffering and the shortness of his life. The week he finished his university studies, he wrote, “Life itself is vanishing fast. Make haste for eternity” (Memoir).
Eternity’s Veil Lifted
It wasn’t long before the evidences of tuberculosis were unmistakable. Early in 1839, he wrote, “My sickly frame makes me feel every day that my time may be very short.” And to his own congregation, he said early in 1843, “I do not expect to live long. I expect a sudden call someday, perhaps soon, and therefore I speak very plainly” (Memoir).
All of this suffering and expectation of death produced a focused simplicity and intensity that gave increased power to everything else McCheyne did. He saw it as a merciful way that God lifted the veil from eternity. In living and dying in the morning of life, McCheyne kissed the Rose and felt the thorn. His supreme joy was to know Christ. He lived in fellowship with Jesus through the word and prayer. And the thorn of his suffering intensified and purified that fellowship so that we are still being inspired by it 176 years later.