Advice to Readers about Shortcomings

For many years Isabella wrote a popular advice column for a Christian magazine in which she answered readers’ letters about their problems and concerns.

In 1912 she received a letter from a very disappointed person who signed her letter, “Honest.”

Here is the letter:

I don’t know as there is any sense in my writing to you, but I kind of want to talk to somebody. I’m pretty near discouraged, and that’s the truth. And of all things to be discouraged about it’s religion. Isn’t that dreadful?

Folks disappoint me so! There isn’t anybody half as good as I thought they were; nor one-quarter as good as they ought to be, considering what they profess.

There’s a man here that I used to think was too good for earth, and I’ve found out he’s got an awful temper. And another man that they boast about being excellent is almost too stingy to eat his own dinner. And so it goes—everybody disappointing; and I’m disappointed in myself, too; maybe that’s the worst or it.

It seems as though religion has gone back on us, somehow, or we would all be different. What do you honestly think about it? I’m not “young people,” but I have lots to do with young folks and they disappoint me fully as much as the older ones.


Here is Isabella’s reply:

I am especially glad to receive this honest letter just at this time. I wish very much that you could all have been at the devotional service this morning in the great amphitheater or the New York Chautauqua, and heard President Frost, of Berea College, Kentucky, on “Good People’s Shortcomings.” It was so entirely in line with your experience, and so helpful. I wonder if I can tell you enough about it to pass on the helpfulness?

His Bible illustrations interested me; they were in a line of which I had never thought before. For instance, there was Terah, who started to go with his family to Canaan, pulled up stakes and got out of the old home, and on his way to the new. But he found a pleasant place to stay, and tarried.

And they departed together from Ur to the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran and settled there. Genesis 11:31.

He meant to go on; he fully meant to. He thought about it quite often; but what is the record?

“And Terah died in Haran.”

Isn’t it a striking analogy? So many of us, having started for the promised land, tarry by the way, are willing to do so, feed ourselves on good resolutions and let the days slip by, not getting on an inch. Doesn’t that account for some of your disappointment?

Then read the story of Azariah. He “did that which was right in the eyes of Jehovah.” Ah, doesn’t that sound well? It encourages us; but just read on. There is a “howbeit”’ in his record.

“Howbeit the high places were not taken away.”

He did well, in most things, even in the sight of God; but he didn’t reach up to his opportunities. He left those idolatrous high places standing, to lead the people astray.

Howbeit the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places. 2 Kings 1:4.

Then there was Noah, the famous ark builder, so remarkable for his exact and persistent obedience that he stands out in history as an example, and was given the rainbow for a pledge that God would have him in remembrance. Yet, read in Genesis of Noah’s sad lapse into sin. The truth is told plainly: Noah began to be drunken.

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken. Genesis 9:21.

That final record of human weakness and imperfection stands; it must have been for a purpose.

Now, come over to the New Testament and see those two friends — Nicodemus and Joseph of Aramathea — creep out of the shadow to minister to the body of Jesus the crucified. They must have been good men, great men, admirable men in character. In fact, we know that they were. But how much more we could have thought of them if they had not followed him secretly!

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. John 19:39.

So we might go on indefinitely, always finding a “howbeit” or a “but” in the record.

Suppose we were to write a few chapters of the Bible ourselves, this morning? About Deacon Justice, and Elder Earnest, and Mistress Lofty, and Miss Tearful. Good, honest, sympathetic, devoted, “but” ….

The fact is, we are all strung up on disjunctive sentences, every one of us.

The record of imperfection, failure, missing the mark, lapsing into sin, was all made for a purpose. What was that purpose? Certainly not to discourage us. Wasn’t it, rather, the contrary? Even those who walked with God failed or fell short. They need not have done so, but they did. Search where we may, we find one perfect Pattern only. Was not this record made to give us courage to try forever to measure up to it?

It is pleasant and helpful to find the people who are traveling with us gaining in strength, in courage, in self-control, in all the graces that we need for the journey; but, after all, we need but one perfect Leader. If we keep our eyes fixed upon him, we need not stumble, even though those just ahead of us do.

It is no wonder we are disappointed with ourselves. We ought to be, but not to the point of giving up or of laying the blame on others. Our lapses should simply drive us closer to the Guide who has promised, someday, to present us to his Father “without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing,” and to cultivate a living faith that “what he has promised he is able also to perform.”

That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. Ephesians 5:27.

This will keep us from discouragement, and help us each day to grow more sure that, while we are none of us by any means what we might be, it is not “religion” that has “gone back on us,” but our own weak following.

As for our “professions,” what do we profess, my friend, but that we are sinners, trusting in the redemption that is in Christ Jesus to save us and pledged to look to him for daily grace to help us follow closely?

Be sure that he will do his part; let us begin anew each morning and try hard at ours.

What do you think of the advice Isabella gave?

Do you think Isabella’s advice helped give “Honest” a different perspective?  

6 thoughts on “Advice to Readers about Shortcomings

  1. This is definitely an article that is much needed today. Isabella was on point! We are to pray for our brothers and sisters—as well as ourselves—for none of us is perfect, and look to the only One who is perfect—the Author and Finisher of our faith.

    1. When I read this article I thought the same thing, that Isabella’s advice is just as true and right for today as it was in 1912 when she wrote it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! —Jenny

  2. This makes me, more than ever, wish I could meet Pansy talk with her! Thank you for sharing this with us!

  3. I have only recently discovered Pansy – Isabella Alden – and am eager to read and learn from her writing and the thoughts she shared.

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