Don’t kill the horse

‘God gave me a horse, and a gift to deliver. Alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the gift.’

I first read that quote many years ago, and I’ll explain the sad reason behind the statement.

The words are attributed to Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a presbyterian pastor in Dundee from 1836-1843.

M’Cheyne was born in Edinburgh in 1813 and enrolled at the city’s university when he was only 14. A few years later his Christian convictions came alive, and he began studying divinity. As he completed his theological study he wrote this: ‘Life is vanishing fast, make haste for eternity.’

That ‘make haste’ mindset controlled everything M’Cheyne did. Each moment had to be invested in profitable work. Soon he was minister of St Peter’s Church in Dundee. All around he saw people with ‘hardness of heart’ to the Christian gospel. He worked day and night for their lives to change.

After three years of constant work his health was affected. His heart was suffering ‘palpitations’ and quickly they got worse. His friends were concerned; his doctor advised complete rest. Reluctantly he agreed, and returned to the family home in Edinburgh. The following year he was persuaded to join a group of ministers assessing Christian work in Israel; M’Cheyne’s inclusion was partly because the climate would be good for his health. He was gone for six months. During the return journey he became dangerously ill and nearly died. But he recovered and, once stronger, returned to Dundee.

While M’Cheyne had been away, a ‘revival’ had broken out in Scotland including Dundee. When he returned to St Peter’s church, things were very different from when he left. The church was filled. People with a deep concern for ‘eternal realities’ cried out for God’s mercy.

He threw himself into his work with renewed passion. He met with anyone seeking God. He preached in St Peter’s, and in the open air, and at meetings across Scotland, and into England. No-one could have worked harder for his people.

In February 1843, he toured north west Scotland – an area with rugged countryside, high mountains, narrow passes, and almost everywhere exposed to the worst of weather coming off the Atlantic Ocean. M’Cheyne preached 27 times in 24 places, often struggling through heavy snow to his next engagement.

By the time he returned to Dundee he admitted he was desperately tired. But typhus fever had broken out across the city so he visited sick person after sick person, hardly taking rest. Of course he was not immune. His own burning fever began on March 12th, and after a week he became delirious and died on March 25th. M’Cheyne was engaged to be married, and aged just 29.

He died convinced that he’d given his all for God and God’s work, yet sensing that somehow he’d ‘killed the horse’ – his body – which God had given him to deliver the gift of the gospel.

The words spoken by M’Cheyne near to his death have helped me and frightened me. What’s frightened me is the warning that I could bring all I was meant to do with my life to a premature end. What’s helped me is the realisation that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and the goal is to finish, and to finish still strong.

Before explaining more, let me be clear here what I’m not talking about. People have accidents, or become victims, or develop illnesses. Everything is changed through no fault of their own. A soldier loses his legs when a roadside bomb explodes. A young health worker in Asia contracts a disease to which she has no resistance and dies. An aid worker in the Middle East is kidnapped, and though eventually released has ongoing struggles with fear and loss of confidence. A young mum contracts cancer and dies within two years, leaving behind a husband and two very young children.

These are tragedies. These are people whose lives were ended or damaged long before anyone would have expected. They never had the chance to fulfil the potential everyone believed they had. But they didn’t cause the events which happened to them.

Their circumstances are not what this blog is about. I am writing about things we do – things we control – that damage or shorten our futures.

Because these things are numerous and varied I can only give examples.

Sometimes the issue is personal management of our health. I wrote in a recent blog about back problems I’ve had throughout my adult life. (Will life always be this way?, 13.9.21) I asked the specialist I saw in America if my damaged back could be the result of a rugby accident when I was 15. (I was hit in my back by an opponent’s knee as he tackled me.) ‘No,’ he said. ‘The state of your back is not the result of an accident. You were likely born this way.’

So, no-one caused my back pain, but there has always been one person responsible for managing it. I’ve been good about that, but not as good as I should because most of the time I’ve been overweight. Carrying too much weight stresses knees and back. It was easy to find excuses. When you’re a minister you go to meetings at which the host puts out scones and cakes. As an executive leader you go to conferences where they feed you three cooked meals a day. At other times you meet with people in restaurants. While in America, I had days with meetings like that at breakfast, lunch and dinner. One breakfast meeting in a restaurant lasted so long my lunch guest arrived. That was convenient, but did serious damage to the waist line.

Weakness of will meant I often ate the wrong things. Even when I ate the right things, I ate too much. Now that I’m retired, and almost always eating at home, I choose healthy things. Sorry, I should tell the truth – Alison chooses the healthy things. And I’m very grateful she does, as I weigh a lot less now than I did.

That’s my confession – I’ve not always looked after my health. I suspect most people could make a similar confession, though not necessarily about weight. Perhaps smoking? Or drinking more than a little? Or not getting enough sleep? Or anything else that risks shortening our years.

Then there’s the issue of overwork which M’Cheyne likely got wrong. I’ve seen employment adverts which virtually spell out that they want an employee who’ll give 110 per cent, surrendering heart and soul to the company. These are invitations to abandon health, family life, friendships, recreation, for the greater profit of a business. That deal is never worth taking.

Yet many do sign up, and they go along with a culture which demands that you start early and finish late, that you don’t take most of your vacation time, and that you answer your phone or emails any time of night and day. Often the wages are good, but you pay a heavy price to get that income. Marriages break up. Children become strangers. Health breaks down. And nothing lives in your mind except work.

Work is good and honourable. But overwork kills the spirit and the body.

For some, career and much more is shortened by serious loss of reputation. It happens when someone fakes their curriculum vitae to get a top job. Or when they’re found to have given bribes to win a contract. Or they lied in court. Or they falsified accounts to make the business look more profitable. These things have significant legal consequences, but even if the legalities are escaped the actions are usually career-ending.

Sometimes the failure isn’t legal but moral. I worked beside a journalist who’d had an affair with the wife of a very prominent civic officer. The relationship ended when it became public. The wife’s marriage was damaged, and so was the journalist’s career because he had to move far away to find another job. Tragically, church ministers can fail morally in similar ways. The vast majority would be ashamed of their actions, but they were weak when they should have been strong. It’s not always ‘career’ ending – there can be restoration – but the damage done is never small.

There have always been addictions, and they have dreadful consequences. Addiction to alcohol is mostly obvious. The same can be true with drugs sold on street corners. But addictions to prescription medications are often secret. And often deadly.

This information on deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales comes from the British government’s Office for National Statistics

Almost half of all drug poisonings continue to involve an opiate. For deaths registered in 2020, a total of 2,263 drug poisoning deaths involved opiates; this was 4.8% higher than in 2019 (2,160 deaths) and 48.2% higher than in 2010 (1,527 deaths). Opiates were involved in just under half (49.6%) of drug poisonings registered in 2020, increasing to 64.5% when we exclude deaths that had no drug type recorded on the death certificate.*

It shocks me that opiates cause almost half of drug deaths, and the number has grown by almost 50 per cent over ten years. Often few knew someone was addicted until they overdosed and died.

There are other kinds of addictions too, such as gambling and pornography. Increasingly, worries are expressed that computer gaming has become compulsive, and not just for children. Perhaps TV soap operas are also addictive. I knew someone who recorded two or three every evening, and sat up late watching them.

I find much to admire in the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. And I never learned how to limit my commitment to caring for people’s bodies and souls. The sacrifice always felt worth it.

But there’s also much to learn from M’Cheyne. His words about ‘killing the horse’ and so ‘can no longer deliver the gift’ are sobering. Would he have wanted to have lived and ministered for longer? I feel sure he would.

There is a challenge, then, in his words. We make choices, and what stops us fulfilling our potential will be a bad choice.


* Extract taken from

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