Man and the Gospel - 1
"My brethren, count it all joy when
ye fall into divers temptions."
ST JAMES 1. 2.
HERE is an old story of two knights who fell into a quarrel, almost into a combat, about a shield - the one asserting, and prepared with his sword to maintain, that the shield was made of gold ; the other as positively asserting that it was not gold but silver. Both were right; and there was no more occasion for quarrel between them than there has often been between good men in religious controversy. Looking at a doctrine from different points of view, not having the same stand-point, as it is called, they quarrelled; and the quarrel was a mistake. These two knights saw one and the same shield; but looking on it from opposite sides, each saw a different face; this was of silver, that of gold.
Like that shield, the word temptation, as used in Holy Scripture, has to be regarded under two aspects. It has two meanings; and unless care be taken to distinguish the one from the other, we may fall into a very serious mistake. Some times temptation is employed as another word for afflictions, trials ; at other times in a sense so different, that, instead of counting it all joy, we should dread nothing more than to fall into divers temptations. Whatever is calculated to inflame our corruptions, and has a tendency, from its own nature and ours, to seduce us into sin, is temptation; and it is in this sense the word is used when it is I said, "Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man. But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his lust, and is enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin when it is finished bringeth forth death."
In this, the most common sense of the word, to fall into temptation, is often, notwithstanding our best and strongest resolutions, to fall into sin. Such is the weakness of our nature! and how can that, which leads in so many cases to sin, ever be an occasion of joy? Who would keep his body under, as the apostle says, who would be temperate in all things, who would hold the old man nailed to the cross, who would mortify the flesh with its affections and lusts, who would keep his marriage garment unspotted of the world, will not throw himself into the arms of temptation, but rather shrink from it with fear and dread. He will go out of his way to avoid temptation, as he would the road frequented by a ravening lion, a house or street where coffins were rife, and the plague was raging. He fell among thieves, is true of him who falls into divers temptations; and he would often die under his wounds, but for Him who drew His own portrait in the picture of the good Samaritan. Beset by robbers and assassins, he may conquer through divine strength, but he has a hard fight for it, nor comes out of the battle without some wounds to heal.
"Stand in awe, and sin not;" "Watch and pray, that ye enter notinto temptation," are warnings which no good man should disregard. Is this to be a coward? Anything else were the height of rashness. Who sleeps by a magazine of gunpowder needs to take care even of sparks; who walks on slippery ice, let him not go star-gazing, but look to his feet, and take care of falling. Whatever provokes to sin, though beautiful as Bathsheba, - what is in its nature calculated, and by the cunning fiend intended to draw us into transgression, - is a danger against which we cannot be too much upon our guard. Though in themselves innocent, pleasures are sought at too great hazard that grow on a dizzy crag, or among the grass where adders creep, or in the lofty crevice of some tottering wall, or on the brink of a swollen flood; and all the more if, such as our poet describes, -
The language of joy is praise: but when a man is passing through temptation,
the time is not for praise but prayer; it is for sighs, much more than songs;
for strong crying, and tears, and holy fears; for deep horror, and the drawn
sword that gleamed in the hand of Christian, as, amidst spectral forms, hideous
sights and sounds, he trode the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Count it all
joy? Who consults his soul's peace, purity, and safety, instead of counting it
all joy to fall into divers temptations, will do his utmost to avoid them; his
constant, daily, earnest prayer, "Lead me not into temptation;" and
when he falls into it, his cry - St Peter's on the sea, - " Save me, I
perish !" - that of one with the coils of a monstrous snake
contracting round his form, "Make haste unto me, 0 God, thou art my
help and my deliverer; 0 Lord, make no tarrying."
It is in an old, but now rather uncommon, use of the word that we are to understand temptation, as used by St James when he says, "Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations." It stands there for what in common language we call trials ; - those troubles from which the best no more than the worst are exempt; the bitter ingredients that mingle with every man's cup; the cup that is found in every man's sack; the sufferings that, in some form or other, are ever occurring between the cradle and the grave, and that chequer a life which at birth begins with a cry, and at death ends with a groan.
And what a grand faith is that which glories in these tribulations! The world, a cold philosophy tell us to bear what we cannot throw off, stoutly to face what we cannot shun, and, like one who holds his breath and sets his teeth to some painful operation, to endure what we cannot cure. How divine the faith which, thrusting these cold comforters aside, comes to the mourner weeping by the coffin, visits the captive pining in his dungeon, stands by the martyr bound to his stake to say, "Glory in tribulations" - " Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life which the Lord bath promised to them that love him!" Since trials more or less painful are the lot of all, God's people should learn how to bear them.
In Old Testament times Christianity was in the opening bud; now it is in the full- blown flower. Sustained then by types and symbols, it was the eaglet when the mother stirs her nest and bears it on her wings; now a full-feathered eagle with her foot on the rock, and her far-piercing eye on the sun, she springs upwards to cleave the parting clouds and soar high above them. Still, though without our advantages, these Old Testament saints present remarkable instances, among other graces, of resignation; and as we see the trees in early spring living, standing, though autumn blasts and winter frosts have stripped off all their leaves, we see in these patriarchs how stoutly faith in God can stand when trials have robbed life of every green joy, and the days come, of which he says, "I have no pleasure in them," the poor sufferer would be happy with his head beneath the sod, to sleep where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest What an illustrious example of this was Job, when deep answered unto deep at the noise of God's waterspouts! Billow after billow went over him; he goes down, never as it seemed to rise again; but faith cannot drown, and how wonderful to see his head emerge, and, as he looks around on the desolation, fortune and family ingulfed, to hear him say, "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord ;" or, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him;" He has slain mine, my sons, my daughters, my joys and hopes, all are dead and gone; now let Him slay not mine but me also, yet will I trust in Him. What faith! What sublime resignation! And would we, now suffering under trials, bear them, or, having to suffer, would we meet them with like submission, we must learn to yield to, not to resist God's will. Strive to enter in at the strait gate, - at all cost and hazard ; let sinners strive after conversion - to be in Christ; but strive not, impatient of trials, to get out of them.
If, like many, you are "bound in affliction," it will do you no good to fret against it; that will but make the iron cut deeper into the flesh. The yoke sits easiest on the neck of the patient ox; and he feels his chain the lightest who does not drag but carry it. Bow before the trial, as I have read travellers do when overtaken in the desert by the dreadful simoom. The Simoom! When that cry rises, striking terror into the boldest hearts, and the purple haze sweeps on, which to breathe is death, they make no attempt to fly - the swiftest Arab scours not the desert like the wing of this scourge - but, instantly, they throw themselves on the ground; every head is muffled; and there, low in the dust, trembling, dumb, in awful silence they lie, and let the poisonous wind blow over them. "Hide thee in the dust," hide thee in the dust, is the voice of God in our calamities; and the lower we lie there before Him, passive under His mighty hand, yielding to His sovereign will, we shall suffer the less when days of darkness come.
To take an illustration from more familiar scenes, we should meet life's trials as we do the billows, to which Scripture so often compares them. When the foaming breaker comes rolling in, meet it erect, with bold front, defiant of its strength, and, sweeping you off your feet, it hurls you among the seething water. We have tried it; and, all but suffocated, have risen, lacerated and bleeding, from the flinty beach. But meet the billow bent, stoop to its foaming crest, bow before its power, and, roaring, it passes harmlessly over your head; and as the waves neither come so fast, nor stay so long, but there is time to breathe between them, by this simple art you stand like a rock, and see the proudest billows burst foaming on the beach. A blessed art this, when deep is answering unto deep, and all God's waves and billows go over us! Who, seizing every opportunity to pray, bends to trials, breaks them - and is least stunned by the rudeness of their shock. And thus it is, perhaps, that Christians of a gentle spirit, by nature as well as grace more pliant than defiant, that women, by their constitution less tough and more ready to bend, have more passive courage, often bear troubles better than stout men; they let the wave go over them, not fighting against God, but saying with Christ, "Father, not my will, but thine, be done;" or with Eli, "It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good."
Again, the sight of God in his trials greatly helps a good man to bear them. The nearer we get to God in times of trouble, the less their pain and the greater our profit. The son who, seeking to escape correction, stands at arm's length struggling to get away, feels the full power of the rod; but light falls the stroke on him who, confessing, "I am afflicted far less than my iniquities deserve; I will be dumb, opening not my mouth, because thou didst it," flies to his father's bosom, and falls penitent at his feet It happens in the spiritual as in the natural world, that the farther from him who strikes the heavier, and the nearer to him who strikes, the lighter falls the blow. Consider this, besides, that God never strikes his people with both hands; for who has ever sought Him in their trouble, drawn near to him in deep affliction, but found that if He was strong to smite, He was strong also to support?
Did you ever see a father beating a son who resisted? He holds the boy with one hand, and he smites him with the other. It is not so God corrects a penitent, loving child. While one hand is employed to strike, what does He with the other? They who draw near to Him crying, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him," ever find the other employed not to hold, but to uphold them. Wiping away the tears the rod starts in their eyes, pouring balm into the wounds His hand inflicts, sustaining while He smites, kissing while He corrects, He teaches His people that trials are the badge of sonship. "Whom he loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth."
But submission is not the highest lesson taught in the school of trial. That school has higher instruction and nobler prizes. It is a great thing to learn submission; but it is a grand thing to rejoice in, and rejoice over our afflictions, as St Paul did; and St James says we are to "count it all joy when we fall into divers trials." Why not? why should that language surprise us? why should we start at it? why hear it with an incredulous ear, if seasons of trial are the occasions of drawing out the tenderest love of God? Why not, if they correspond to the sick-bed and sick-chamber, where we get into the innermost circle of domestic affections? By the anxiety all show for our recovery; by the midnight watching at our bed; by no trouble grudged, but sleep, and rest, and pleasure, and everything sacrificed for us; by the noiseless step and gentle whispers; by the cloud that darkens every brow when physicians look grave, and our case looks worse; by the joy that sits on every face when we are better; by a thousand little kind attentions that, never thought of in the day of health, come out shining like stars at night, we now know how precious we are to others, how much we are valued, how tenderly loved.
It is almost worth being ill to know this, and receive the kindnesses that our illness calls out. Is that a set-off to thy pains of sickness? How many of the Lord's people have had this to set against their sorest trials, that they never felt nearer to God, and God never drew nearer, nor dealt so kindly with them, as when they were cast into darkness and the deeps - their affliction abounded, but then their consolations much more abounded. It was on the mount where it lightened and thundered that God showed them His glory. It was in the wilderness that water gushed from the smitten rock and they ate of angels food; that the pillared cloud was seen by day, the pillared fire by night. It was when their bark was tempest-tossed, and the sky was dark, and the sea was rough, that Christ came walking on the billows to still the tempest, to subdue their fears. Can they ever forget how then and there He fulfilled these gracious promises - " When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; thou shalt walk through the fire, and not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. Fear not, for I am with thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour."
But, as I have said, the child of God has joy not only in trials, but through them ; and for this, among other reasons, because they prove the genuineness of his faith - they are the trying of your faith, as an apostle calls them.
There was a British regiment once ordered to charge a body of French cuirassiers. The trumpets sounded, and away they went boldly at them; but not to victory. They broke like a wave that launches itself against a rock. They were sacrificed to traders fraud. Forged not of truest steel, but worthless metal, their swords bent double at the first stroke. What could human strength, or the most gallant bravery, do against such odds? They were slaughtered, like sheep on the field. And ever since I read that tragedy, I have thought I would not go to battle unless my sword were proved. I would not go to sea with anchors that had never been tried. But of all things for a man's comfort and peace, what needs so much to be proved as his faith - its truth and genuineness?
Any way, it is a serious thing to face death, and meet the King of Terrors on his own ground; but were our faith never tried till we stood face to face in the valley with our last enemy, face to face with our God at the bar of judgment, it were still more serious. With our powers of self-deception - with Satan sitting at the sinner's ear, saying, Peace, peace, when there is none to be found - with so many who have the form of godliness, but are strangers to its power - the stoutest heart might tremble for the issues. Before I go down to battle, I want to know if my sword is forged of trusty steel; before I go to sea, I want to know if my anchor is hammered out of the toughest iron; before I set out on my journey, I want to know if this is sterling money - is it genuine? has it the ring of true metal? will it stand the test? So long as it is fair weather, I want to know if my hopes rest on sand or on solid stone; when rains descend, and waters rise, and winds blow, and beat on my house, it may be too late to know the truth. I want to know it now ; - now, when, if I should have been building on the sand, there is time to seek in Christ the Rock of Ages, a foundation that cannot be moved. It is of the utmost importance to have our faith tested; and God's people, therefore, have cause to bless Him, and do bless Him, for the trials that have put it to the test, and proved it true.
If like the treading of camomile, or the crushing of a sweet-scented plant, that bathes in odours the hand that bruises it, or the burning of incense that draws out its latent perfumes, your trials have called forth heavenliness of mind, child-like submission to God's sovereign will, strong trust in His providence, a ready willingness to bear your cross for the honour of Him that bore His cross for you, count it all joy when ye fall into divers trials. They have equipped you for future battles, and furnished you with recollections and experiences to disarm the greatest evils. His presence with you in the past is a pledge of His presence in the future; that He will be with you through whatever troubles, great or small, you have to go - with you always - with you even unto the end. Not one that has never been tried when days of darkness come, you can "remember the years of the right hand of the Most High." Why should you be dismayed? You stand on the vantage-ground of David, when, the host reeling back with terror, and Saul attempting to dissuade him from meeting the Philistine, he stood calm, collected, and, eyeing the giant, said, "He that delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, shall he not also deliver me from the hand of this Philistine ?" Let the past throw its shadow, or its light rather, on the future. "That which is to be bath already been;" for "our God is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning." Courage, then! go forward! and as in days gone by, the favour of God shall be your shield, and the joy of the Lord your strength.
Some bear their sufferings as, if we are to believe the stories we have read, the Indian bears his tortures. Tied to the stake, abandoned of hope, looking on his last sun, a crowd of enemies dance round him with frantic gestures and brandished knives; and as they go round and round in the horrid dance, though avoiding to wound, they strike at his throat and face; but the red man stands motionless, erect; nor shrinks, nor winks, nor gives sign of terror. Ingeniously cruel, they search out the most delicate seats of feeling, and thrust the burning match up to the quick. Inch by inch they cut his living form to pieces; but, with blood, they wring out no groan from that defiant man. Naming their braves he has slain and scalped in battle, this hero of the forest sings his bold death-song, scorning their powers of torture. How different from the central object in this savage scene the form of Christian patience, her head meekly bowing to the hand of God; heaven in her eye; resignation in her face; and on her pale lips the seal of silence! It is pride, not patience, that sustains yonder haughty savage - stubborn endurance, the power of an iron will.
And in some who, uncomplaining, suffer pain, or loss, or wrong, or calumny, their silence, though they get credit for patience, may be but pride. It is a well-known fact, that a man who stands erect can carry a heavier burden on his head than he ever can on his back; and, raising itself to the occasion, pride has stood erect under crushing burdens, confronted misfortune, and, while smarting under insult and injuries, has scorned to gratify its enemies by betraying a sign of pain. This is but the counterfeit of patience. Nor are we to take for this Christian grace the callousness or hardening effect which sometimes follows trials of great severity. They say that the wretch condemned to the Russian knout feels only the few first blows. After these have cut to the bone, and brought away long strips of flesh from his quivering back, the power to feel is gone. The nerves are crushed, their life destroyed; his head droops, and the lash falls on the dying man as if he were already dead. And some such callousness has come over hearts that have suffered many and severe afflictions; future trials giving them no more pain than the hot iron gives the blacksmith's horny hand.
I once knew one, a Christian widow, who had early lost the husband of her youth. Other losses succeeded. The pledges of their love, a son and daughter, were snatched from her arms; her house was left unto her desolate. But these blows did not, as many feared, break that bruised reed. A pious woman, she was patient, resigned to the will of the widow's Husband; still it was not patience that replied to my sympathy, when, alluding to her first great trial, she said, "My first grief made so large a hole in my heart, that now it can hold no common sorrow."
Patience is not pride; and is not insensibility. Acutely sensitive, she may feel all the pain of the rod, while kissing the hand that uses it. She bears, not because she can do no otherwise, but would no otherwise; not because she cannot help it, but would not alter it. Leaving God to choose for her as well as chastise, to select her cross as well as her crown, she meekly says, "It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good," - not me, but Him, good. How noble is this grace! It makes the greatest of all sacrifices, yielding up our fondest wishes, our dearest hopes, our strongest will to the sovereignty of God. Offering the greatest of all sacrifices, it achieves the greatest of all victories; here man makes a conquest of himself: and, in the judgment of Solomon, "he that ruleth his own spirit is greater than he that taketh a city." Let a good man, then, count it all joy when he falls into divers trials, for - God's Spirit brooding on the stormy waters - patience is born of trials. If not their child, she is their nursling; it is their storms that rock her cradle. I say not that we are to pray for trials, though, all unexpected, they may come in answer to our prayers. We seek that patience may have her perfect work, and God sends trials in answer. It is rough work that polishes. Look at the pebbles on the shore! Far inland, where, some arm of the sea thrusts itself deep into the bosom of the land, expanding into a salt loch, lies girdled by the mountains, sheltered from the storms that agitate the deep, the pebbles on the beach are rough, not beautiful; angular, not rounded. It is where long white lines of breakers roar, and the rattling shingle is rolled about on the strand, that its pebbles are rounded and polished. As in nature, as in the arts, so in grace; it is rough treatment that gives souls as well as stones their lustre; the more the diamond is cut the brighter it sparkles; and in what seems hard dealing, their God has no end in view but to perfect His people's graces.
Our Father, and kindest of fathers, He afflicts not willingly; He sends tribulations, but hear St Paul tell their purpose," Tribulation worketh patience, patience experience, experience hope." Therefore, as he said, we glory in tribulation, therefore we should count it all joy when we fall into divers trials. Let patience have her perfect work; wait patiently for God to explain His own providences; wait patiently for the hour of deliverance, - Woman, He says, my time is not yet come; wait patiently for the hour of death, for the heavenly rest, for the blood-bought crown. A little more patience, and you shall need patience no more. One of the multitude whom no man can number, who stand before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands, - the days of your mourning are ended.
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