23. Fishing

Only A Prayer Meeting by C. H. Spurgeon

I fear I have gathered but few illustrations during my holiday in the North, though I am almost always upon the look-out for them. I have spent nearly all my time on board a friend’s yacht, cruising by day in sunny seas, and usually anchoring at night in lonely bays, far off from the busy haunts of men, where you hear neither rumble of traffic nor hum of city life, but are startled by the scream of sea-birds, the cry of the seal, and the splash of leaping fish. The profound quiet of those solitary regions is a bath of rest for a wearied brain: lone mountain, and sparkling wave, and circling gull, and flitting seaswallow, all seem to call the mind away from care and toil to rest and play. I am grateful, to the last degree, for the brief furlough which is permitted me, and for the intense enjoyment and repose which I find in the works of God. No exhibitions, or picture galleries, or artificial recreations, or medical preparations can afford a tithe of the restoring influence which pure nature exercises.

I have been resting, but not idling; relieving the mind, but not smothering it. Very frequently, I have seen others fishing; and as I have looked on with rest and excitement, I have been sorry to have unable to take so small a share in it. Perhaps, however, I have gained as much from lines and nets as those who personally used them; they took the fish, but I preserved the silver truths which the creatures brought in their mouths. These pieces of money I have taken, like Peter, not for myself only, but “for me and thee,” and so let us share them. We have a good company of spiritual fishermen in our midst to-night, for here are the young members of “the College of Fishermen,” who are making and mending their nets; here, too, are eager members of a church in which, when the minister says, “I go a-fishing,” all the members say, “We will go with thee.” Here are the fishers of the Sabbath-schools and of the Bible-classes, fishers of the Tract Society and of the Evangelists’ Associations; all these have heard our Lord say, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Not for the hurting of our fellows, but for their good, we seek to “take up all of them with the angle, to catch them in our net, and gather them in our drag;” and therefore we are willing to learn from others who are fishers, too.

Fishermen speak of what they call gathering bait, and they say, such a fish is a “gathering bait,” and another is “a killing bait.” We need both. The gathering bait brings the fishes together, and thus becomes very useful. You cannot catch the fish if they are not there, and it is therefore wise to throw in your ground-bait pretty freely to attract the finny multitude. I wish some of my fellow-fishermen were a little more liberal with gathering bait, for one would like to see the creeks and bays of their pews and galleries swarming with life. Some of them appear rather to frighten the fish away than to attract them around their hooks, they are so dull, so monotonous, so long, and so sour. All spiritual fishermen should learn the art of attraction; Jesus drew men to Himself, and we must draw men in like manner. Not only in the pulpit, but in the Sunday-school class, you need gathering bait, to draw the little ones together, and maintain and increase their numbers. In every other sphere of Christian service, the same is true. If faith cometh by hearing, we should first endeavour to gain interested listeners, for how shall they believe if they will not hear? Common sense teaches us that the people must be drawn together first, and must be induced to attend to what we have to put before them; and, therefore, we must lay ourselves out to this end, because it is essential to our highest aim. A pleasant manner, an interesting style, and even a touch of wit, may be useful. I have sometimes been blamed for making use of pleasantries, but I have done so partly because I could not help it, and chiefly because I have perceived that the interest is sustained and the attention excited by a dash of the familiar and the striking. A sufficient quantity of that which will draw men to listen to our message we not only may use but must use, unless we mean to be content with empty nets and useless hooks.

A good temper is a fine gathering bait in a Sabbath-school. There are some of our brethren and sisters whose very faces are enough to gather the children round them. If I were a little girl, I could not help being drawn to some of the sisters who teach in our schools; and if I were a boy, the kindly manners of many of our brethren would bind me to them at once. Kindly teachers need not bribe children with gifts, their looks and words are irresistible bonds. Cheerfulness and good humour should be conspicuous in all our attempts to catch men for Jesus; we cannot drive them to the Saviour, but they may be drawn. There is a way of offering a tract in the street which will ensure its acceptance, and another way which will prejudice the receiver against it: you can shove it into a person’s hand so roughly that it is almost an insult, or you can hold it out so deftly that the passer-by accepts it with pleasure. Do not thrust it upon him as if it were a writ, but invite him to accept it as if it were a ten-pound note. Our fish need delicate handling. A certain painter, when asked how he mixed his colours, replied, “With brains, sir,” and we must fish for the souls of men in like fashion. If you are to win souls, you must not be fools. Men will no more succeed in the Lord’s business than they will in their own unless they have their wits about them. If Christ’s work be done in a slovenly or churlish manner, it will answer no man’s purpose, but prove labour in vain. We cannot make the fish bite, but we can do our best to draw them near the killing bait of the Word of God; and when once they are there, we will watch and pray till they are fairly taken.

The fisherman, however, thinks far less of his gathering bait than he does of his catching bait, in which he hides his hook. Very numerous are his inventions for winning his prey, and it is by practice that he learns how to adapt his bait to his fish. Scores of things serve as bait; and when he is not actually at work, the wise fisherman takes care to seize anything which comes in his way which may be useful when the time comes to cast his lines. We usually carried mussels, whelks, and some of the coarser sorts of fish, which could be used when they were wanted. When the anchor was down, the hooks were baited, and let down for the benefit of the inhabitants of the deep; and great would have been the disappointment if they had merely swarmed around the delicious morsel, but had refused to partake thereof. A good fisherman actually catches fish. He is not always alike successful; but, as a rule, he has something to show for his trouble. I do not call that man a fisherman whose basket seldom holds a fish; he is sure to tell you of the many bites he had, and of that very big fish which he almost captured; but that is neither here nor there. There are some, whose knowledge of terms and phrases, and whose extensive preparations lead you to fear that they will exterminate the fishy race; but as their basket returns empty, they can hardly be so proficient as they seem. The parable hardly needs expounding: great talkers and theorizers are common enough, and there are not a few whose cultured boastfulness is only exceeded by their lifelong failure. We cannot take these for our example, nor fall at their feet with reverence for their pretensions. We must have sinners saved. Nothing else will content us: the fisherman must take fish, or lose his toil; and we must bring souls to Jesus, or we shall break our hearts with disappointment.

Walking to the head of the boat, one evening, I saw a line over the side, and must needs hold it. You can generally feel, with your finger, whether you have a bite or no; but I was in considerable doubt whether anything was at the other end or not. I thought they were biting, but I was not certain, so I pulled up the long line, and found that the baits were all gone; the fish had sucked them all off, and that was what they were doing when I was in doubt. If you have nothing but a sort of gathering bait, and the fish merely come and suck, but do not take the hook, you will catch no fish; you need killing bait. This often happens in the Sunday-school: a pleasing speaker tells a story, and the children are all listening, he has gathered them; now comes the spiritual lesson, but hardly any of them take notice of it, they have sucked the bait from the hook, and are up and away. A minister, in preaching, delivers a telling illustration, all the ears in the place are open; but when he comes to the application of it, the people have become listless; they like the bait very well, but not the hook; they like the adornment of the tale, but not the point of the moral.

This is poor work. The plan is, if you possibly can manage it, so to get the bait on the hook that they cannot suck it off, but must take the hook and all. Do take care, dear friends, when you teach children or grown-up people, that you do not arrange the anecdotes in such a way that they can sort them out, as boys pick the plums from their cakes, or else you will amuse, but not benefit. When your tackle is in good trim, it is very pleasant to feel the fish biting, but it is quite the reverse to watch by the hour, and to have no sign. Then patience has her perfect work. It is very encouraging to feel that a large creature of some sort is tugging away at the other end of your line. Up with him at once! It is better still to have two hooks, and to pull up two fish at a time, as one of our friends did. To do this twice every minute, or as fast as ever you can throw the line, is best of all. What an excitement! Nobody grows tired, and the day is hardly long enough. Up with them! In with the lines! What, another bite? Quick! quick! We seem to be all among a shoal. The basket is soon filled. This is good fishing. Our great Lord sometimes guides His ministers to the right kind of bait, and to the right spot for the fish, and they take so many that they have hardly time to attend to each case, but in joyful haste receive the converts by the score, and fill the boat. It is grand fishing when the fish flock around you, but it does not happen all the day long, nor yet all the days of the week, nor yet all the weeks of the year, else would there be a great rush for the fishers’ trade.

When amateurs are at sea, and the fish do not bite, they have nothing to do but to give over, and amuse themselves in some other way; but it must not be so with us, to whom fishing for souls is a life-work and a vocation; we must persevere, whether we have present success or not. At times, we have to spend many a weary hour with our line, and never feel a bite; but we must not, therefore, go to sleep, for it would be a pity for the angler to lose a fish by negligence. Draw the line in every now and then, look to the hooks, try a new bait, or go to the other side of the vessel, and cast your tackle into another place. Do not be disappointed because you do not always fish as you did once; have patience, and your hour will come.

Our captain, one evening, when we were in a very lovely bay, came up to me, and said, “Look at this; I only just threw the line over the side, and this fine cod has taken the bait in a minute.” A cod is noted for the thorough manner in which it swallows the bait. Being of a hungry nature, it is not in a picking humour, but feeds heartily. I remarked, at the time, that the cod was like earnest hearers who are hungering for Divine grace, and so greedily snatch at the Sacred Word. Hungering and thirsting, their souls faint within them; and when the promise of the Gospel is placed before them, they seize it directly. Tell them of Jesus, and full deliverance through His precious blood, they do not make two bites of the gracious message,- they dash at it, and they are not content till they have it, and it holds them fast. Oh, for more of such hearers! All fish are not of this kind, for some of them are cautious to the last degree. The author of “The Sea Fisherman” introduces us to an old salt, who says of the Conger eel, “He don’t bite home, sir,”- that is to say, he does not take the hook if he can help it. In the instance referred to, it had stolen the bait six times, and yet was not captured. Alas! we have an abundance of hearers of this kind, who are interested but not impressed, or impressed but not converted; “they don’t bite home,” and we fear they never will.

This fishing with a line is a suggestive subject, but I must leave it to say a word about fishing with the net, a mode of fishing to which our Saviour makes more numerous allusions than to angling with a hook. When we came home, on the Monday, after visiting Rothesay, we cast anchor in the Holy Loch. My friend said to me, “Look at the fish. Just look at them out there, they are leaping up on all sides; and there are the men, let us go and see what they are getting.” We were soon in a boat pulling towards them, while all around us were the fish leaping in the air and splashing back into the water. We reached the fishers, who were just getting out the net. I suppose you all know how this is done. A certain number of men remained near the shore with one end of the net, while others in a boat encompassed a great circle of water, letting out the net as they went along. Thus they enclosed a large space, and the salmon within that area were fairly imprisoned. When all was ready, the fishers began to pull at both ends, so as to make the circle smaller and smaller. We followed the decreasing ring, and kept just outside the edge of the net. The fish, which had still been leaping all around us, now began to do so in great earnest, for those within the range of the net seemed to know that they were in an undesirable position, and strove to leap out of it. Some escaped, but many more failed in the attempt. The men kept pulling in, and then it became very exciting, for it was evident that the net was full of life.

Here is a very good picture of what we should do as a church. I am to go out on the Sabbath with the net, the grand old Gospel net, and it is my business to let it out, and encompass the thousands who fill the Tabernacle; then, on Monday night, at the prayer-meeting, we must all join in pulling in the big net, and looking after the fish. So we bring to land all that have been caught. Many, who were surrounded by the net during the sermon, will jump out before we secure them; but, still, it is a comfort that it is not every fish that knows how to get out of the Gospel net. Some of them will be in a rage, and bite at the nets; but they will only be the more surely held prisoners. To me, it was a very pleasant sight to see within the net a mass of living, twisting, and struggling salmon-trout, most of them fine fish. There were thirty-seven large fish taken at one haul. Oh, that we may often succeed in taking men in larger numbers still! Let us drag in the net to-night. Let us pray the Lord to bless the services of last Lord’s-day, and recompense the fisher’s toil.

We must never be satisfied till we lift sinners out of their native element. That destroys fish, but it saves souls. We long to be the means of lifting sinners out of the water of sin to lay them in the boat at the feet of Jesus. To this end, we must enclose them as in a net; we must shut them up under the law, and surround them with the Gospel, so that there is no getting out, but they must be captives unto Christ. We must net them with entreaties, encircle them with invitations, and entangle them with prayers. We cannot let them go away to perish in their sin, we must land them at the Saviour’s feet. This is our design, but we need help from above to accomplish it; we require our Lord’s direction to know where to cast the net, and the Spirit’s helping of our infirmity that we may know how to do it. May the Lord teach us to profit, and may we return from our fishing, bringing our fish with us! Amen.

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