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?  

New Free Read: “Scattered Verses”

This month’s Free Read is “Scattered Verses,” a short story Isabella Alden wrote in 1892.

In “Scattered Verses” Isabella illustrates the sacrifices mothers often make for their families, which makes this a perfect story for Mothers’ Day! Here’s a brief description:

“Such a chance! I never had any such chances, you know. They didn’t study the Bible much when I was a girl, not in this way!”

So says Mrs. Halstead when she, her husband and daughter, take a cottage for the summer at a famous Sunday-school assembly. But those Bible classes, as precious as they are, occupy a good deal of time—time she used to spend caring for her family; and while she may be learning a lot about Paul’s letters to the early churches, her little rented cottage is in chaos from kitchen to bedroom! Before long Mrs. Halstead is faced with a difficult decision: should her devotion to studying the Bible be stronger than her devotion to her family?

You can read “Scattered Verses” for free!

Click here or on the book cover above and choose the reading option you like best:

  • You can read the story on your computer, phone, iPad, Kindle, or other electronic device. Just choose your preferred format from
  • Or you can choose the “My Computer” option to read a PDF version, which you can also print and share with friends.

Marking Ester’s Bible

Ester Ried owned a Bible—a “nice, proper-looking Bible” that she read from time to time when she remembered to do so.

If her Bible was at hand when Ester was ready to read, she used it. If not, she took her sister Sadie’s, or picked up “the old one on a shelf in the corner, with one cover and part of Revelation missing.

But when Ester traveled to New York to visit her cousin Abbie, she packed in such haste, she forgot to add her Bible to her suitcase—a circumstance Abbie immediately tried to correct.

“Oh, I am sorry—you will miss it so much! Do you have a thousand little private marks in your Bible that nobody else understands? I have a great habit of reading in that way. Well, I’ll bring you one from the library that you may mark just as much as you please.”

Mark in a Bible? That was an entirely new concept for Ester.

She had never learned that happy little habit of having a much-used, much-worn, much-loved Bible for her own personal and private use, full of pencil marks and sacred meanings, grown dear from association, and teeming with memories of precious communings.

Once Abbie delivered the Bible to her, Ester began to think the idea of marking certain verses was an excellent one. The only problem was, she didn’t know how to go about it and had only a pencil to at her disposal.

When Isabella wrote Ester Ried in 1870, there were no Bible journal kits, stickers or markers like the ones we can buy in stores today.

Colorful Bible tabs from

And she probably never imagined there would one day be Bibles specifically designed for readers to create their own artwork inspired by a verse on the page, like the one below:


So when Isabella wrote Ester Ried, she had her title character take a much more simple approach; she had Ester merely underline certain Bible verses that had meaning to her, which was a perfectly sensible method for a young lady who was new to regular Bible study. As Ester progressed in her Christian journey, so, too, did her ability to memorize and mark verses that held special meaning for her.

Reverend Dwight Lyman Moody was a friend of Isabella’s family, and a keen proponent of Christians marking their Bibles.

Dwight Lyman Moody

He rarely went anywhere without his Bible, which he called his “Old Sword.”

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871—a disaster that caused so much loss for so many people—someone asked Rev. Moody what he had lost in the fire. Rev. Moody focused on what was important:

“I have not lost my Bible, or my reputation.”

Anyone who was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pages of his Old Sword would have seen proof of Rev. Moody’s constant study.

“My Bible is worth a good deal to me because I have so many passages marked that, if I am called upon to speak at any time, I am ready.”

He often told people not to buy a Bible they were unwilling to mark up or write in; and he suggested using a Bible that was printed in a way that offered plenty of room for jotting notes and suggestions.

“Bible-marking should be made the servant of memory; a few words will recall a whole sermon. It sharpens the memory, instead of blunting it, if properly done, because it gives prominence to certain things that catch the eye, which by constant reading you get to learn by heart.”

So what method did Rev. Moody use to mark in his Bible? Below is a plate (unfortunately it’s a little fuzzy after being duplicated many times) that shows his Bible, open to the first chapter of Ephesians. (You can click on the image to see a larger version.)

In addition to notes and references to other verses, he utilized a series of underlines and diagonal lines, which he called “railways.” It may look like a jumble of lines and notes, but his system was really very simple.

In the first column in the page on the right you can see how he used railways to connect words of promise that had meaning to him:


In the second column he underlined words he identified as “together” words. Then, in the blank area on the page on the left, he cited additional “together” verses he found in Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, Romans, and I Thessalonians.

Although this system worked for him, Rev. Moody encouraged everyone to find their own methods.

“There is a danger, however, of overdoing a system of marking, and of making your marks more prominent than the Scripture itself. If the system is complicated it becomes a burden, and you are liable to get confused. It is easier to remember the texts than the meaning of your marks.”

In 1884 Rev. Moody wrote an introduction to a book titled How to Mark Your Bible, which incorporated many of the methods he used in his own Bible markings.

The book shares many examples of how to mark your Bible with railway connections and word groups in the same way Rev. Moody did.

You can read the book for free. Just click on the cover to get started.

Do you use markings, colors, stickers or tabs in your Bible?

What marking method works best for you?