by Mike McHugh
Year after year passed, and Alonzo grew in strength and stature. Instead of playing on the ground with his little toys, he now enjoyed riding his father’s plough, tossing the drying grass in the mowing field, or on special occasions picking berries on a sunny afternoon. Although his interests and activities were growing and changing in many ways, he remained substantially the same in heart. Alonzo was continually committing sins in the manner already described. These sins were different in form and character as he grew older, but their nature was the same. There was the same murmuring of his conscience, the same evasions of his heart and self-deception, as well as the same effort to justify his deeds as right, or at least as something other than clearly wrong.
At this point in the story, some readers may be beginning to wonder if their was something drastically wrong with Alonzo’s parents. Although it may seem odd, the fact is that Alonzo’s mother and father brought him up, at least in most respects, rather well. They taught him his duty to God and his fellow man. They prayed with and for their son. When it was clear that he disobeyed, they would discipline him promptly, and if necessary punish him. In addition, as much as possible, Alonzo was kept away from evil influences and companions. Much to their credit, Alonzo’s parents were also responsible for helping him to form many good habits, and thus, so far as the influence of his parents could go he was often deterred from the commission of sin.
The power of outward restraints and parental influence can only go so far, however, and for this reason Alonzo’s spiritual progress was at best inconsistent. He avoided out of shear force of habit certain sins, while diving headlong into other transgressions without scruple. For example, he would have hesitated at stealing even a pin from his sister, but he would by cruel tricks and harsh words rob her of as much enjoyment and peace as possible without hesitation. If his heart had been honest and teachable in regard to its own true character, these cases would have taught him that all of his moral goodness was a mere superficial show that rested upon no godly foundation. But his heart was neither honest nor open in respect to itself; it loved to be deceived. When Alonzo read a story in one of his little books about a thief who did evil before the watchful eye of God, he took great pride in thinking about how good and honest a boy he was in comparison.
In large measure due to parental influence, Alonzo would seldom forget to say his prayers, both mornings and evenings. Whenever he committed sin during the course of the day, however, he almost never thought of the need to get alone with God in order to confess it and to ask forgiveness. Sadly, this fact never seemed to bring Alonzo to the place where he could recognize that he had no real personal affection for his Maker. He was blinded through self-deception, and as a result was still inclined to believe that he was the friend of God, and that he worshipped Him well enough. Alonzo knew very well that he sometimes committed sin, but he did not suppose that it was often. He was so in love with the idea of loving God, that he could not think of himself as anything other than a very virtuous and promising young man.
When he was about twelve years old, Alonzo made a discovery that startled and alarmed him. Some young men had formed a plan of ascending a certain mountain summit, which was located not far from his father’s farm. They had chosen Sunday evening as the best time for their hike, an hour or two before sundown. “A great many people,” said one of the boys, “think that the Sabbath ends at sunset, and an hour or so before will not make any great difference. We must climb up in time to see the sun go down into the valley.”
This disposal of the obstacle to their hiking trip was abundantly satisfactory to all those who were inclined to go, but Alonzo had some doubts as to whether it would prove equally conclusive to his father and mother. One thing worked in his favor, however, for his father was away from the area on business and would be gone several days. Alonzo, therefore, reasoned that he may well be able to persuade his mother to go along with his plans. At any rate, it was plainly worthwhile to try to get her consent.
The very next day, the anxious young man approached his mother who was finishing some sewing in their parlor. After several moments, Alonzo began to nervously present his request. As soon as he finished speaking, his mother formed a surprised look on her face, and then told him plainly that he must not go.
“It would be very wrong,” she said.
“But mother, we shall walk along very quietly. We will not laugh or play. It will only be taking a little walk after sundown.”
Alonzo’s mother was silent for a short time.
“Come, mother,” said the young man, hoping that he had made some impression, “do let me go. Do say yes, just this once.”
After a moment’s pause, she replied: “Some persons do indeed suppose that the Sabbath ends at sundown, but we think it continues until midnight, and we cannot shift and change the hours to suit our pleasures. Now, with all your assurances about walking quietly with your friends, you know very well that on such a hike it will be quite impossible for you to keep the Sabbath day holy. You therefore come to me with a proposal that would require me to allow you to directly disobey one of God’s commandments. I can not consent to such a plan.”
As his mother was saying these words, emotions of anger and indignation began to rise and swell in Alonzo’s soul. Foreseeing that his request would be rejected, he began to walk off towards the door and, just before the final words were uttered, he was gone. Alonzo shut the door violently, muttering to himself, “I never get to do anything.”
In a state of wretchedness and sin (which my readers must conceive of if they have ever acted as Alonzo did), he walked out of the house and sank down upon a bench that he had made in the orchard. At this spot, he gave full flow to the torrent of boiling passion that was stored up in his heart. In a short time, however, the excitement of his feelings began to subside, and there came suddenly a sort of flash of moral light which seemed to reveal for an instant the true character of the situation. Something within him seemed to say: “What an unreasonable, ungrateful, wicked boy you are, Alonzo. Here is your mother, as kind a mother as ever lived. You owe her your very existence. She has taken care of you for years, without any return, and has done everything within God’s will to make you happy. Now, because she cannot consent to let you do what she sincerely believes is wrong, your heart is full of anger, malice, and revenge. What a heart! Love and duty are forgotten, and every feeling of respect and gratitude for all she has done is obliterated by this one single disruption of your foolish desires.”
This reflection passed through Alonzo’s mind in a matter of a few seconds. It flashed as a beacon of heavenly light for a moment, and then was gone. A short time later, the dark, heavy clouds of guilt and anger rolled over his soul once again. Alonzo sat upon his bench in moody silence.
After several minutes, he began to see that he was very wrong. The feelings that he had been venting towards his mother were, he knew, unreasonable and sinful, and he determined that he would stop indulging them. So he rose and walked through a narrow gate into the yard, where a large pile of logs was lying. He picked up an axe that was sitting on the ground nearby, and went to work. It was not long, however, before it became clear that it was one thing to sense that his feelings were wrong, and quite another thing to have genuine peace of mind. His mind was entertaining very conflicting and confusing views as he began to chop the firewood. Floating visions of his friends hiking up the hill without him, vexation at his disappointment, uneasiness at the recollection of his unkind treatment of his mother, all mingled together in his mind.
“I wish I could feel right towards my mother about this issue,” said Alonzo aloud, as if someone was around to here him. But this statement did not produce anything in Alonzo’s heart except a type of dogged sullenness, which he could not break or dispel. He concluded, therefore, that it was best to simply forget the whole affair for the present. So, he laid down the axe and began to pick up some sticks and tiny logs to carry in for kindling the morning fire. He secretly determined that when he went in and met his mother again, he would not show his impatience and anger, but would act “just as if nothing had happened.”
Just as if nothing had happened! How, after such an act of disrespect and ingratitude, could he act as if nothing had happened? One would think that Alonzo would have been able to recognize the flaws in this self-centered plan. But he was incapable of making any such reflection, for his heart loved to cling to its sin and be deceived by it. His foolish heart was so blinded by pride and selfishness, that it was impossible for him to repent of his sin, and to feel that cheerful acquiescence to his mother’s decision that he knew God required. As a result, Alonzo did indeed decide to forget all about the situation. The poisoned fountain that had so suddenly burst forth in his heart, was covered up again, smoothed over, and left ready to explode upon any new occasion.
This case, and a few other similar occurrences, led Alonzo to think that there might be deeper sources of corruption in his heart than he was accustomed to imagine, but he did not see the value in searching out the matter. His life passed on, therefore, without much thought or regard for his true spiritual condition. He had, however, a sort of standing suspicion that there was something wrong, but he could always find an excuse for ignoring the needs of his soul. The uneasiness which this suspicion caused was soothed and quieted to a great degree by the exalted opinion he had of himself, for Alonzo was satisfied that their was a great deal in his conduct and character that was excellent. He was, after all, generally considered to be a good boy. He knew this very well, and one of the grossest forms of deceit that his heart assumed was when it was willing to believe that it deserved all of the praise that men had given, even under the most superficial and shallow pretence. Alonzo never could begin to grasp the truth that there is no deceit quite so destructive to one’s spiritual condition as self-deceit.
A number of months later, another incident occurred which came close to awakening Alonzo to the true nature of some of his perceived virtues. During the winter months he went to school, and the good qualities which he fancied he exhibited there were among those on which he most prided himself. One afternoon, as he was walking home with a green satchel full of books slung over his shoulder, he stopped a few minutes at the brook which crossed the road and looked down over the bridge upon the smooth dark colored ice which covered the deep water. It looked so clear and beautiful, that the young student went down and cautiously stepped upon it. The ice was so transparent that it seemed impossible that it could be strong. He sat down, nevertheless, on a stone that projected out of the water, and while he was there his teacher walked up to the bridge. This gentleman stopped at the middle of the bridge, and began to talk with his pupil. Alonzo and the teacher were on very good terms, and after talking together a few minutes at the brook, they both began walking along the path together.
Their walk was taking them in the direction of the woods, which provided a shorter course to the part of the town where they were both going. As they were stepping over a low place in the area where their path diverged from the road the teacher said: “Alonzo, I am glad to see you carrying your books home.”
“I like to study my lessons at home in the evenings,” responded Alonzo with a feeling of secret satisfaction.
“Well, young man, what would you say if I should tell you I could guess exactly what books you have in your satchel?”
“I don’t know,” Alonzo replied, “perhaps you saw me put them in.”
“No, I did not,” insisted the teacher.
“Well, you can tell by the shape of the books which you can see by looking at the satchel,” guessed the perplexed young student.
“No,” came the response, “I could not tell which book was which merely by the size or shape of your satchel.”
Finally, overcome by curiosity, Alonzo asked, “Well, what do you think they are?”
“I think they are your writing book and your spelling book,” replied the teacher in a serious tone.
An appearance of surprise and concern quickly formed on the face of Alonzo. He told his teacher that he was correct, and asked him how he knew.
“I know by your character,” he said simply.
“By my character!” exclaimed Alonzo. “What do you mean by that remark?”
“I will tell you, though I think it will give you pain rather than pleasure. You are one of the best boys in school, you give me very little trouble, and you are generally diligent in your duties. Now, have you ever considered what your motives are for the choices that you make?”
“No sir, said Alonzo slowly, “I have never thought about them particularly. As a student, I only want to use my time well, and learn as much as I can in order to be useful when I am a man.”
The confused student thought that this ought to be his motive, and so he fancied that it was. Alonzo did not deliberately intend to tell a falsehood. He did not say it because he wished to deceive his teacher, but by virtue of the fact that his heart had deceived him. It is so with us all.
“You think so, I have no doubt,” said the teacher soberly, “but now I wish to ask you one more question. In what two subjects do you think you are the most proficient?
The young student reluctantly admitted that he thought that he prided himself on his knowledge of writing and spelling as much as in any other area of study.
“Are there any studies that you are less advanced in at this point?” questioned the teacher.
“Yes, sir,” responded Alonzo.
“Well,” continued the teacher, “How is it that the writing and spelling book, which represent the two studies in which you have the greatest skill, are the very ones which you are bringing home to work on in the evenings?”
Alonzo did not respond immediately. In fact, he had no suitable answer for his teacher at all. His only thought was that if he was inclined to study after school hours, then he had the right to take any book home that he pleased. This thought, however, he did not share with his teacher.
“And I should like to ask you one more question,” said the teacher. “In what study do you think you are most deficient?”
“I suppose it is my Arithmetic,” replied the perplexed student, recollecting how he disliked and avoided everything connected with calculation as much as possible.
“And do you ever carry home your Arithmetic to study in the evening?”
Alonzo shook his head.
“Now, you know that there are few skills more important to a man than a knowledge of figures. How does it happen then, if your motive is to prepare yourself for future usefuless, that the very study in which you are most deficient is the one that you never make any extra effort to improve?”
Alonzo fell silent, as he struggled in vain to find anything to say on his behalf. He felt very unhappy, and was rather sure that his teacher was being unkind. After all, to be given harsh interrogation simply because he was purposely bringing home some of his books while leaving his other studies at school, seemed very wrong. Tears came to his eyes, but he strove to suppress them, and said nothing.
“I know, Alonzo,” continued the teacher, “that these questions of mine shall trouble you. I have not, however, asked them merely to trouble you, but for the purpose of helping you to learn a lesson regarding the deceitfulness of your heart. I want to encourage you to think about this tonight when you are alone, and perhaps I will some day talk with you again.”
Several moments later, Alonzo was relieved to discover that he and his companion had finally reached the end of their journey together, for they had reached the spot in the road that was very near his teacher’s residence. They bid one another goodbye, therefore, and Alonzo walked on alone.
“He means,” thought the young lad, “that if I honestly wanted to improve, that I should take more interest in the studies in which I am deficient.”
As this thought floated through his mind, it brought after it a dim, momentary vision of the pride, vanity, and love of praise which he suddenly saw revealed as the true fountain of all those excellencies at school on which he had prided himself. But seeing all those fancied virtues of industry, love of learning, and desire to be conscientious, wither so completely under the influence of a few simple questions, gave him no pleasant subject of reflection. He was, therefore, glad to see a load of wood coming toward his father’s yard as he approached it, and he hastened to help unload it. Through this activity, Alonzo was able to push aside the disagreeable subject that he was considering without actually having to decide whether or not his teacher was right.
The challenge given to him by his teacher, however, shook and weakened his faith in the goodness of his character. He did not come to the distinct conclusion that his character was all hollow and superficial, but he had a sort of vague fear that it might prove so. This was another aspect of the burden of sin, which his heart struggled to manage, and which Alonzo bore each day without thinking much about it.
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