October is here and Halloween is here when children talk about ghosts. However, it is very common to hear a person make this reply to a question: “I haven’t the ghost of an idea.” It is a frequent, emphatic way of saying: “I don’t know a thing about it.”
But the phrase can mean much more than that. It may be a confession that one has lost what was once a living idea. It has now a disembodied spirit, a specter, a phantom, of someone who was once alive. It is an unsubstantial apparition which looks like someone who was once alive.
Ghosts have played a large part in literature. Shakespeare’s plays are full of ghosts. There is the well-known ghost of Hamlet’s father, who came upon the battlements of Elsinore to complain of, “the deep damnation of his taking off.” There is the frightening ghost of Julius Caesar who appeared to Brutus and Cassius and said in solemn tones: “I will meet you in Philippi.” There was the ghost of the murdered king who appeared to Macbeth at a banquet.
In present-day-life, the “ghost of an idea” is just a thin relic of something that was once alive. Recall the pitiful entry in Paul’s letter to Timothy: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). He had been gripped by a great idea. He enrolled in the Christian’s disciples’ fellowship, a trusted companion of Paul. What a chance to enter history in a large way! But the lure of the world cast a cloud over his devotion until he had only the ghost of that tremendous idea.
What happened to Demas? We cannot tell for sure, but we can guess. It may be that Demas had begun to follow Christ without first counting the cost. It may be that Demas was one of these people who came to Christ in a kind of moment of spiritual glow. It may be that he was swept into the church in a moment of emotion, without ever having thought out and faced the cost of being a Christian. It may be that there came to Demas the inevitable weariness of the years. The years have a way of taking our ideals away, of making us satisfied with less and less, of lowering our standards, of accustoming us to defeat.
Paul only said of Demas that “he loved this present world.” The trouble with Demas may have been quite simple, and yet very terrible. It may simply have been that he loved comfort more than he loved the way which led first to a cross and then to the stars. It may be that Demas preferred to be a prosperous man of the world than a Christian. He preferred a flabby prosperity to the athletic heroism of the Christian way.
We think of Demas, not to condemn, but to sympathize, for so many of us are like him. Demas represents many of us today. We make some pretense of Christian commitment, but our lives are saturated with the non-Christian world. Like Demas, we contend that Christ is all right as long as he doesn’t interfere with us.
The spirit, the teaching, the judgment, and the love of Christ confront Demas and demand answers. Demas, measured against the stature of a sincere Christian, shows up pitifully weak and poor.
Let us, however, examine ourselves. Demas comes to church every Sunday. His name is carried on the roll-books of thousands of local churches. He is no atheist or unbeliever. He believes that there is a God. But, now he puts other things first. Why? Because there is a great struggle for the loyalties of men and women. In many cases, the unspiritual world wins out. We give our loyalties to the temporary fancies of life and lose sight of the things of the spirit which really matter.
Alas, it has been so many, many times in a person’s relation to the church. It rises to a height. The Christian can say and feel, truly:
I love thy church, O God,
Her walls before thee stand,
Dear as the apple of thine eye
And graven on thy hand.
But the “first, fine, careless rapture” of allegiance, the outgoing zeal, slows down, and then it degenerates into formality. And it is at last only the ghost of a dominating, transforming idea.
Don’t be a ghost!